The news late last night that the navies of the United States, Australia and Canada have abandoned a long-planned birthday celebration in Auckland to join New Zealand's earthquake relief effort caused quite a jolt.

They were all in New Zealand or on their way for the New Zealand Navy's 75th birthday party.

And all sympathy to those who have spent several years organising the event.

But the symbolism of what these guests are doing will give more substance to the event in ways that a party will never do.


The reasons to maintain a modern and versatile navy will be never more evident.

The solidarity will be remembered far longer than any party.

No one expected our friends to send their ships to the Kaikoura coast.

There was not a public or political clamour for them to do so.

There has not been any suggestion that New Zealand could not cope with its own crisis since the 7.5 earthquake in the early hours of Monday morning cut off the main rail and road link down the South Island.

There was no suggestion that going ahead with the international naval review and celebrations in Auckland from today was inappropriate.

The sentiment may have been different if there had been a higher death toll than two.

But there had been no criticism of the celebrations, apart from a small group of activists who object to a defence industry conference being held in Auckland today - and to the US sending a ship to the celebrations.


The USS Sampson is the first US Navy ship to visit New Zealand in 33 years, after Barack Obama lifted a self-imposed boycott by the US as a response to New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy.

But eschewing a grand entrance, it is now heading towards Kaikoura with two helicopters that will join the relief effort.

It will be joined by the Darwin from Australia and the Vancouver from Canada.

The three countries heading to Kaikoura are Five Eyes intelligence partners, the closest friends of of New Zealand. Almost family.

Britain, the fifth, would probably have been among them had it sent a vessel to the birthday party but it does not have a strong presence in the Asia Pacific.

The next question is whether other friends who are here for the Navy's celebrations will feel similarly inclined.

Japan has been assisting in aerial surveillance of the affected earthquake area.

But China is here, too, along with Five Power Defence Arrangement partners Singapore and Malaysia.

New Zealand will be assuring them they must feel no such obligation but perhaps the whole party will be heading south.