COMMENT:

If we are to believe the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, there was nothing to get excited about in the Government's new strategic defence statement when it comes to China.

There was apparently no difference between what he has said about China and what Defence Minister Ron Mark's strategic statement says about China.

Nor was there anything to get excited about this week when New Zealand's ambassador in Beijing  got the hard word from China or China's ambassador to Wellington sent a stern message to the New Zealand Government.

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This happens so often as to not be unusual, Peters says.

The diplomatic finger-wagging through private channels on Monday was followed by a public denunciation of New Zealand's statement in Beijing on Tuesday.

According to its Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, New Zealand was "irresponsible" and "wrong".

That was followed on Wednesday by a counter-denunciation of China by Peters.

New Zealand was right, not wrong, he said.

We can be grateful, perhaps, that at this delicate point in the relationship, Peters wasn't tempted to make one of his election-time jokes about two wongs.

The truth is that the Government's decision to change New Zealand's established practice of not publicly drawing attention to China's failings is a significant shift.

But such are the exasperating conventions of diplomacy and politics where deniability is as important as truth, that no one will publicly acknowledge it.

No one in Government will come out and say that this is a significant shift and these are the reasons why the decision was taken.

Instead we have got denial, followed by contradiction - ministers denying a shift but contradicting themselves when insisting that this Government is a lot more bold about these matters than the last Government was.

New Zealand developed its relatively close relationship with China during the 25-year chill of diplomatic relations the United States imposed on New Zealand. It was an integral part of New Zealand developing an independent foreign policy after its suspension from the Anzus alliance.

We can be grateful, perhaps, that at this delicate point in the relationship Peters wasn't tempted to make one of his election-time jokes about two wongs.

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New Zealand's descriptions about contentious parts of China's activities have reflected the circumspection of a small country and in a form in which meaning is implied rather than stated.

New Zealand has always stressed the importance of adherence to the rules-based order. But ministers for many years have talked about New Zealand not taking sides in the territorial disputes.

That language has not been continued by Peters, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern or Mark.

Past ministers have talked about relationships with the United States and China not being mutually exclusive, and taken some pride in navigating both of them. Again, that language appears to have gone.

The reality now is that the increasingly difficult path for New Zealand to navigate is not between the United States and China but between Australia and China.

The more Australia's relationship with China has deteriorated, the more anaemic New Zealand's "friends-with-everyone" position has looked from across the Tasman and felt by some within the New Zealand system.

Australia is strident in its criticism of China on security issues.

It has the security of an unwavering alliance with the United States, in Julie Bishop it has one of the most senior foreign ministers in global affairs, and the older the bolder, and it sees its position of influence in the Pacific being threatened by China's influence.

The mouthpiece of China's Communist Party, the Global Times, recently said in an editorial that "Australia's relationships with China are among the worst of all Western nations". (It was commenting on an article by a former Australian ambassador to China who more-or-less said the same thing).

Any pressure, real or implied, by Australia about New Zealand's vanilla position on China has been resisted by politicians in the Clark and Key/English Governments on national interest grounds.

For a small country to adopt the same posture of an ambitious middle power would be to risk too much.

But there is no doubt that the new Coalition Government is aligning itself more closely with Australia's view of China.

No one would have been applauding louder than Australia at the defence strategic document which specified China's activities in the South China Seas, activities in the Antarctic where it is building a fifth base, and references to its lack of democracy and record on human rights.

The move towards Australia was evident in February from Peters' first foreign policy speech in office the so-called Pacific Reset, which seems to be morphing into a China Reset.

Some of it was merely a continuation of existing approach with a new title, such as emphasis on economic development - the "hand up" approach rather than "hand out".

The importance New Zealand places on the Pacific as its sphere of influence is not new.

The reset differed in two ways from the past Government, the amount of money it has to spend in the Pacific (courtesy of inherited surpluses and extra borrowing) and the strategic backdrop Peters painted in terms of it being a counter to China's influence in the Pacific.

As is customary when one wants deniability, the reference to China was made in only coded reference in the speech and more explicitly in the informal question time.

By the same token, if China takes great exception to the shift by New Zealand, officials may attempt to downgrade it by pointing out it was Ron Mark's document, leaving Winston Peters free to conduct his high-level diplomacy unencumbered.

That won't wash. The shift was not taken by Mark and the Ministry of Defence.

It was taken by Peters with involvement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) whose eyes must have been wide open to the uncertain risks of the move. It may not have the significance of trade war with the US, but it will still matter to China.

Pleasing Australia has been deemed more important than displeasing China.

The blow-back from China could come via the ongoing negotiations for the upgrade of the 2008 free trade agreement - there have been four rounds so far and a fifth is in the planning stages.

In whatever way it comes, it will be unconnected and deniable but it should not be a surprise.