When Jacinda Ardern's private secretary was rung in the wee hours of July 16 by Foreign Affairs this year, there was a good reason; US President Joe Biden wanted to talk to the Prime Minister and the call needed to be set up a few hours in advance.
"Great speech!" he apparently began when they connected at 9.30am.
He was talking about her address that week to the NZ Institute of International Affairs conference at Te Papa on New Zealand's place in the region.
Whether Biden had actually read the speech is doubtful but his security advisers and China specialists had.
Its carefully calibrated language meant New Zealand was unequivocally climbing off the fence in terms of the rivalry between the US and China for dominance in Asia and the western Pacific or in a wider area defined by the US as the Indo-Pacific.
"We have embraced the concept of an Indo-Pacific as the wider home for New Zealand," Ardern declared in her speech.
She said a lot more too, and talked about inclusivity - a nod to China - but at its essence, it backed the United States maintaining its primacy in the region.
What New Zealand says matters in terms of allegiances, because as a small country with relatively little economic or military strength, its voice is often its biggest contribution. Hence the pile-on when it takes a different position to its larger friends.
And were the rivalry between the United States and China just about a war of words, such declarations as the one Ardern made might matter less.
But much of the region, especially Australia, has been focusing on the possibility of a real war between the US and China. The flashpoint could be the contested South China sea but much of the recent attention has been on China taking back Taiwan by force.
The focus on superpower rivalry and potential conflict has resulted in an historic new security pact announced on Thursday between Australia, the United States and Britain, Aukus, to help deliver Australia a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and to share other high- tech military hardware.
It meant ditching an existing contract with France for conventional submarines in order to get subs that can travel over longer distances faster, without the need to surface, and which are harder for an enemy to detect.
A war between the world's two superpowers, the elephants economically and militarily, would be unlike anything seen before.
It does not mean New Zealand would join any conflict, but the speech was a counter to the perception that New Zealand had gone "soft" on China.
That perception took hold after Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta eschewed the Five Eyes as the primary vehicle for statements condemning China's human rights abuses. New Zealand wanted to exercise its own judgment over when and how to criticise.
Dr Oriana Skylar Mastro is a specialist on the issue. An American Chinese-speaking academic and military strategist who specialises in China, she was invited to testify at a US congressional commission on Taiwan in February, she has written about it in the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine and the New York Times, she took part in the NZIIA conference at which Ardern spoke, and she recently spoke to the Weekend Herald.
Mastro has noticed a marked shift in the past two years on Taiwan.
She says that China is moving away from its traditional position of peaceful unification with Taiwan and is more seriously considering what it calls "armed reunification" with the island.
"I don't make this argument lightly and I wouldn't have made this argument two years ago but a lot of things have changed in the past 18 months which make me think that there is a real possibility," Mastro told NZIIA.
President Xi Jinping had instituted a military modernisation programme in recent years with a great sense of urgency primarily designed to strengthen the Chinese military capabilities to conduct joint operations, in particular the types of operations needed to take Taiwan by force.
"I think if you look at Xi Jinping and what he has been saying about Taiwan, it suggests that he is dissatisfied at where things are. It's no longer enough to prevent independence [of Taiwan]. I think they need to see progress towards its unification," said Mastro, a Centre Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University, and a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
"Some of my Chinese colleagues in response to my argument have said not that I'm wrong but I would be more right in about four years from now. So we have a timeline disagreement but not necessarily a disagreement about a change in the situation."
She believes China could be emboldened to take Taiwan militarily if China was able to take the island quickly enough to prevent the United States from challenging it (Chinese exercises in the Taiwan Strait could be normalised); and politically, if China believed the consequences of its actions would not be isolation and economic devastation (it is the largest trading partner of about 120 countries).
Activity in the Taiwan Strait has stepped up with China conducting 380 incursions into its air defence identification zone last year.
Xi's reiterated the "unshakeable commitment" to reunification with Taiwan in his speech in July to mark the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party, saying China would advance peaceful reunification but would take action to "utterly defeat" any attempt towards independence.
The communists came to power in 1949 after victory in a civil war against the Kuomintang which fled to the island province of Taiwan and which China insists will never have the status of a country.
Clearly, a long war that disrupted the shipping lanes of Asia would have a catastrophic effect on the global economy, given that China is the largest trading partner of well over half of the world, including New Zealand.
A short conflict, in which China successfully used pre-emptive attacks on US bases and used cyberwarfare to disable a US response, would have less impact on trade, unless the international response was to isolate China economically.
Short of war, China has already shown its willingness to use "grey zone" tactics in its trade reprisals against Australian exports of barley, wine and beef, and promoted calls here for less reliance on China for New Zealand exports.
Mastro spent the past 14 months in Australia, during which time diplomatic relations have sunk and China has imposed trade reprisals. She has noticed changes there in awareness of possible conflict.
"I think partially that is because the really intense economic coercion the Chinese are engaging in against Australia reminds people on a daily basis that China is not afraid to use more aggressive tactics when it serves their purposes," she told the Weekend Herald.
Australia is clearly preparing for a possible conflict, which it would almost certainly join as an Anzus ally of the United States and which has not been superseded by the new Aukus pact.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched a Defence Strategic Update in June last year and pledged $280 billion over 10 years to upgrade the Australian military, citing potential conflict involving China.
"We have not seen the conflation of global economic and strategic uncertainty now being experienced here in Australia in our region since the existential threat we faced when the global and regional order collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s," Morrison said.
Among the specifics are plans to allow the Signals Directorate to better handle cyber-attacks; purchase of long-range anti-ship missiles; development of a high-tech underwater surveillance system; and there has been talk of increasing the presence of US marines in Darwin and basing US naval vessels in Perth.
Morrison this year announced priority to set up a local missile-manufacturing industry through a project called Sovereign Guided Weapons Enterprise.
That deal is now wrapped up in the new Aukus security pact which was announced when Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne were in Washington for annual ministerial talks.
Dutton is the hardline Australian minister Kiwis love to hate after displaying relish at the deportation of "trash" - New Zealand-born criminals, many of whom were raised in Australia.
He became Defence Minister only in March this year, but as a senior minister and a member of Cabinet's national security committee for six years, he has brought an urgency to the job of preparing Australia for conflict.
Morrison and Dutton largely have bipartisan support from Labor in their defence plans and in the new Aukus pact for nuclear powered submarines.
Most support for the massive scaling up of defence spending is rationalised on the basis of deterrence - that the best way to avoid war is to prepare for war.
But the Coalition Government also faces accusations it is "warmongering" and has mishandled its dealings with China, which this year banned ministerial contact between Canberra and Beijing on top of trade reprisals.
Plain-speaking former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating lambasted the current Coalition Government, accusing it in the Australian Financial Review this month of pushing Australia into a headlong confrontation with China through its "fawning compulsion to please America".
Behind the "warmongering" was China's economic growth and its potential to grow larger than the US. "How dare China shirtfront American economic pre-eminence," he wrote mockingly.
This week he criticised the Aukus pact saying it would lead to a dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty.
Hugh White, influential emeritus professor at Australia National University, warned 10 years ago that Australia showed no signs of understanding that as China grew it was unlikely to remain content with the US being the natural leader of the region.
Among the options, he said the US could give up its primacy and share power with China as an equal, or stay and compete headlong for primacy – and it had done the latter with the endorsement of Australia.
White now sees the risk of war as "very high," he told the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney last month.
"If one side or the other backs off, fine we'll avoid a war but if neither side backs off and you look at the trajectory of the escalating rivalry over the last 10 years, and indeed over the last 10 months, then you get yourself to the point you're thinking, well, if neither side backs off then the chances of war are very real.
"… I do see the risk of war not as inevitable but as very high, much higher than others do, and I, therefore, think it's worth making big compromises, and painful compromises, in order to avoid it."
But there was no evidence of compromise: "I see no evidence that the Chinese don't really want to stop the US, to get the US out of Asia. I see no evidence the US does not fully intend to preserve the kind of role it's had in Asia for so long in the past."
China's military expansion has been well documented, not least by United States military experts.
Thomas Shugart, a former US Navy submarine commander and now adjunct senior fellow at Centre for a New American Security, says China has engaged in the largest and most rapid expansion of maritime and aerospace power in generations.
"Based on its scope, scale, and specific capabilities, this build-up appears designed foremost to threaten the United States with ejection from the Western Pacific, and thereafter to achieve domination in the Indo-Pacific," he wrote for the Lowy Institute in Sydney last month.
He said the most obvious manifestations were in three specific areas: the deployment of huge numbers of long-range conventional ballistic missiles; a major expansion of the capabilities of China's long-range bomber force; and the explosive growth of China's blue-water navy.
China appeared to be building a major ballistic missile base on Hainan Island, bordering the South China Sea.
"While China's missile force does not currently appear to possess the range to threaten Australian bases directly from the Chinese mainland, if China were to deploy its IRBMs from its South China Sea island bases, that might no longer be true," he wrote.
Australia's dependence on overseas sea lines of communication (SLOCs) was where China's long-term ambition to control its own SLOCs intersected with Australia's national security.
"Put simply, a China that can maintain the security of its own SLOCs is a China that can deny those SLOCs to others," he wrote.
The Pentagon's own annual report on China to the US Congress last year set out concerns at China's military expansion.
"The People's Republic of China has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernise the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in nearly every respect. Indeed…China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas such as:
• Shipbuilding: China has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the US Navy's battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.
• Land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles: China has more than 1250 ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5500 kilometres. The United States currently fields one type of conventional GLBM with a range of 70 to 300 kilometres and no GLCMs.
• Integrated air defence systems: China has one of the world's largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems — including Russian-built S-400s, S-300s, and domestically produced systems — that constitute part of its robust and redundant integrated air defence system architecture.
Overall the United States outspends China on defence with its annual total being approximately $1000b to China's $280b, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, but the advantage that China has over the US in its own region led to pleading by Indo-Pacific Command to Congress for a boost in spending for the region in a bid called "Regain the Advantage".
The Congress has obliged with $38.5b extra for the Indo-Pacific over five years, in a boost dubbed the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI).
The total defence spend in the region for the 2022 year will be $93b, of which $7b will be extra, mainly for the Navy.
Outgoing US Indo-Pacific Commander Philip Davidson told a congressional committee in March: "As the military balance in the Indo- Pacific becomes more unfavourable, we are accumulating additional risk that may embolden our adversaries to attempt to unilaterally change the status quo before the US could muster an effective response.
"Our deterrence posture in the Indo-Pacific must demonstrate the capability, the capacity, and the will to convince Beijing unequivocally, the costs of achieving their objectives by the use of military force are simply too high."
Where this military build-up by the United States, Australia and China leaves New Zealand is unclear, although any obligation to join a conflict would be moral, not by dint of any treaty.
New Zealand is a formal ally of Australia through the Canberra Pact of 1944; is a member of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) with Australia, UK, Malaysia and Singapore; is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, and was suspended from the Anzus pact with the US and Australia in the mid-80s over its anti-nuclear policies.
However, it has joined Australia and the United States in World War 1 and World War 11, Korea, Vietnam, and in Afghanistan where it sent the crack SAS combat squad and then led a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan.
It did not join them in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but later sent a unit of engineers for post-invasion reconstruction and then in the war against Isis, helped Australia and the US to run the training camp at Taji near Baghdad for Iraqi security forces from 2015 to 2020.
At present, New Zealand frigate Te Kaha and tanker Aotearoa are en route to South Asia for FPDA exercises with the UK's carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth on its maiden voyage.
When New Zealand First held Foreign Affairs and Defence last term under Winston Peters and Ron Mark, it secured a $20b commitment for a capability plan for Defence, and a Pacific Reset which boosted Pacific aid.
Peters said that combination had "significantly restored" New Zealand's relationship with Australia and ended previous complaints about "freeloaders".
With Labour having no Coalition partner, some of the $20b plan is now under review and the timeline is likely to be stretched out, if not some of the acquisitions.
Peters said the benefits and obligations of being a formal ally of Australia were manifold.
"They are to be found in our history, New Zealand geographic setting and maritime dependency, our economic and cultural ties, and above all in our shared values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law," he said.
"Tactless comment from either country in past times all too often reflects an ignorance of the serious issues both of our countries face and have always faced."
Despite New Zealand's suspension from Anzus, Peter Dutton has given hints that he would like to see more from New Zealand, singling it out in a parliamentary speech this month to mark the 70th anniversary of Anzus.
"We have seen the United States at its best when it is in an alliance—in an alliance and a coalition with others who share her values," Dutton said. "And Australia ticks each of those boxes, and our friends in New Zealand tick each of those boxes," Dutton said.
"The work of New Zealand in the Indo-Pacific will be more important in the coming years and decades than ever before, and it will give even greater meaning to this Anzus agreement."
Joe Biden's China expert on the White House's National Security Council, Kurt Campbell, would also like New Zealand to engage more with the US.
"We would like to see New Zealand play a role in some maritime engagements more directly and just active engagement in multilateral fora in which the United States plays a big role," Campbell told the NZIIA conference through video link.
"I think if anything, I'd like to see the United States and New Zealand more actively engaged across the board including in the security side in the Pacific," Campbell said.
"That would be my ambition for the next five or 10 years ."
The United States has maintained a position of ambiguity over whether it would defend Taiwan from invasion by China.
But Oriana Skylar Mastro says she is "100 per cent" certain that the United States would fight a war over Taiwan.
She was not sure what New Zealand's position would be but told the Herald that not supporting the US would be more significant than supporting it.
"Not contributing sends more of a statement than contributing," she said.
"If New Zealand refuses to send even a small contingent in support of US operations, then it is clear that New Zealand is not going to support US efforts against China.
"In some ways, because we have these alliance relationships, if the allies don't step up and do something, that emboldens China more than the allies doing something cautions China."
Dr Reuben Steff, an international relations expert at Waikato University, said there was little debate in New Zealand about the possibility of conflict in the region because it was not openly discussed by politicians, there were fewer think-tanks, and psychologically conflict was a scary prospect.
"We may fear that the more we talk about this, China will pay attention, and therefore depending on how we talk about this, especially our political leaders, there could be real material repercussions in the trade realm.
"You have the example of Australia right there where China banned a number of goods being exported and that is costing the Australian economy."
To encourage discussion at the NZIIA conference, Steff drafted a matrix of potential flashpoints in the region, Taiwan, South China Sea and Korea, and identified some of the factors that could determine New Zealand's response to them (see table).
Those factors included whether the action would be mandated by the United Nations to whether Australia was likely to be involved.
Ultimately, said Steff, any contribution by New Zealand would depend on the context.
"It could depend on the severity of the crisis or conflict, whether it was short and sharp conflict, or prolonged, the specific course the crisis takes, and whether New Zealand has capabilities that Australia and the US would find beneficial. "
It might also be dependent on whether National or Labour was in power. In 2003 under Helen Clark, NZ chose to sit out the invasion of Iraq yet Don Brash said had National been in power, New Zealand would likely have invaded.
New Zealand security specialist Dr Jim Rolfe said New Zealand would be pressed to join any conflict involving Australia and the United States against China, irrespective of New Zealand not being an active member of Anzus.
"If a friend is threatened, then I think New Zealand would be inclined to support them with or without alliance requirements."
Rolfe, a senior fellow at Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies, said what they would want from New Zealand would be as much rhetoric as a physical presence.
Even if New Zealand doubled its military, it would still be a minnow in such a huge conflict.
The New Zealand Government's practice of not calling out China by name was a similar approach to that of the Asean nations of Southeast Asia.
The Asean nations made a great play of not doing megaphone diplomacy and discussing sensitive issues privately.
"Our Government at the moment is trying to follow that line at the same time as listening to the more strident allies about the need for more rhetoric. It's very difficult. It's a balancing act."
Rolfe thinks conflict is extremely unlikely unless red lines were crossed by either side, red lines being, for example, China invading Taiwan, which would be a red line for the US, or Taiwan declaring independence, which would be a red line for China.
But if the shooting started it would be a major conflict and there is no doubt some would be pressing New Zealand to join it.
"There would certainly be voices in Australia saying, 'Yeah, of course, we should be involved. This is the forces of right against the forces of evil.'
"But there would also be strong voices I suspect saying, 'Get real – do we really want to be in the same battle as the elephants fighting each other?'"