When friends fall out it can be very hard not to take sides. When the "friends" are superpowers and you are tiny by comparison, it becomes doubly hard. That is the position our Government is in. Its avowed foreign policy is to remain strictly neutral in the trade war and other tensions between the United States and China. Yet China appears to believe New Zealand is siding against it.
It is hard to draw any other message from the suspension of the invitation to the Prime Minister to visit the People's Republic this year and the postponement of a joint tourist promotion that was to be launched in Wellington next week. And it is not hard to see why China would have the impression this country is not the friend it used to be.
The new Government's "reset" of policy towards the Pacific Islands is strongly tinged with support for the US and suspicion of China's interests in the region. At a speech in Washington in December, Foreign Minister Winston Peters said the Southwest Pacific was "becoming more contested and its security is every more fragile". A purpose of his visit, he said, was to "enlist greater US support in the region closest to New Zealand".
"We unashamedly ask for the United States to engage more and we think it is in your vital interests to do so. And time is of the essence," he added.
He talked of "asymmetries at play in the region when larger players are renewing their interest in the Pacific" and said, "the speed and intensity of those interests at play are of great concern to us." He went on to acknowledge China and said New Zealand "welcomes all partners in the Pacific on terms that take account of the Pacific's needs, where quality projects are sustainable and delivered transparently". Point taken in Beijing no doubt.
New Zealand is the smallest US partner in the "Five Eyes" intelligence sharing arrangements and not the only one to be drawn into the trade dispute through that association. The decision of our GCSB to stop Spark buying 5G broadband technology from Huawei followed a US request which was based on security concerns though it will also favour US suppliers.
Australia had barred Huawei before we did, then Canada and now Britain appears to be coming into line. A small player can be a pivotal one. Our differences with China pale beside those of Canada, which has detained a Huawei executive over alleged breaches of US sanctions on Iran, or Australia, which has taken a more critical stance on China's expansion in the South China Sea and recently helped the US beat China to the use of the Manus Island naval base in PNG. But size might make us more vulnerable to diplomatic pressure if China hopes to chip away some US support in the region.
We have a valuable trading relationship with China and a natural security relationship with the United States. We need to retain both. The Government needs ensure its decisions are seen to be based on disinterested assessments of New Zealand's interests. And we need to tell both sides their disputes are not ours.