One of Jacinda Ardern's responses to the deteriorating relationship with China was to pledge that she would continue to exercise an independent foreign policy – implying that it is somehow under threat.

That is a rather heroic and fanciful interpretation of events that are becoming a serious worry in New Zealand's relationship with China, our second largest trading partner.

This is a diplomatic mess arising not from some David and Goliath contest against a superpower but through a change in attitude to China, one which was never foreshadowed before the last election.


And as the Prime Minister and ultimately responsible for foreign affairs, Ardern has overseen the deterioration even it if has been the result of some cavalier actions of Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

Both Ardern and Peters have downplayed the cancellation by the Chinese Government of a delegation to celebrate China-NZ tourism year - the latest in a series of "scheduling issues" intended to send a signal from China. It was just a dinner, she said. It had been organised by John Key, he said.

Peters described the relationship with China as excellent which means either he is deluded or he is just doing what diplomats and politicians do - pretend that everything is fine until it actually is.

But Peters has been an irritant.

A year ago Peters framed his Pacific Reset in terms of a response to counter China's growing influence in the region, and he challenged China's most important foreign policy strategy, the Belt and Road initiative.

He ended the year with a speech in Washington, almost a love-letter to America, practically begging them to get more involved in the Pacific to counter China's influence.

A National Party Foreign Minister could not have made such a speech without being accused of wanting to rejoin Anzus.

But Peters acts as though he has some magic when it comes to China, that he can say what he likes with impunity.


The poor state of affairs between the United States and China means that balancing the two relationships has become a lot more difficult.

That is reason to take a lot more care in preserving the relationship New Zealand had and to be less cavalier.

The ultimate test of exercising New Zealand's independent foreign policy is not throwing ourselves into the arms of one or the other, but in being able to manage the relationships with both superpowers.