Jacinda Ardern has spent a year practising diplomacy at a high level and it paid off today when she saved face in what had clearly been a misunderstanding over seating arrangements at a gala dinner in Singapore.

She saved herself embarrassment as well as the US embassy in New Zealand and her Singapore hosts by suggesting she had always expected to sit next to "the Pences" rather than US Vice President Mike Pence himself.

For several days her officials had been telling New Zealand media that she would be sitting next to Pence at his request.

She began answering questions about it in Cairns, on the way to Singapore for the East Asia Summit. It was considered a diplomatic coup to get several hours of quality time with such a prominent figure in the Trump Administration.


She continued to answer questions about it when she arrived, in terms of what issues she would expect to raise with him during the dinner.

At no point did she say she would be sitting near him, not next to him. But when it became clear someone had mucked up, and she was sitting with Mrs Pence, not Mr Pence, Ardern insisted that that had been the plan all along.

It meant treating the news media as though it had been at fault in misinterpreting the dinner invitation to sit next to Mr Pence as an invitation to sit next to Mr Pence.

But irritating them was clearly a small price to pay to avoid the alternative interpretation - her being excited about the invitation and then disappointed.

And on that score she had the endorsement of Foreign Minister Winston Peters who laughed off the issue.

It also helped the face-saving exercise that she and Peters managed to have a decent conversation with Pence during the dinner.

It was originally called a "pull-aside" - a diplomatic term for an informal shorter meeting but where notes are usually taken but was later described as "a dinner conversation".

(And what a dinner: the Straits Times described it as oven-roasted pumpkin bisque with rice noodles and prawn ravioli, laced with laksa leaves; slow-cooked Angus beef short ribs with black pepper sauce and Boston lobster seared with garlic butter; and eggs and coconut dessert infused with pandan, and paired with wafers and coffee ice-cream.)


Ardern said they talked about trade but hinted that given the circumstances, it was not the time to set out a case for New Zealand to be exempt from 10 per cent and 25 per cent tariffs on steel and aluminum that the US has imposed on most countries exporting those products.

Besides she has already written to Trump setting out the case. Peters caught up with some counterparts on the global circuit, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Ardern began her bilateral meetings on Thursday with a tangible win involving New Zealand's best mate in Asia, Singapore.

She and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the conclusion of an upgraded Closer Economic Partnership.

It will give Kiwis visa-free entry for three months instead of one month, and companies with offices in Singapore will be able to send employees to work there for eight years instead of the current five.

Her final meetings are scheduled to be with Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who, at age 93, could be running master classes in diplomacy.

Ardern has a day of New Zealand–related visits in Singapore before heading to Papua New Guinea for Apec.