OPINION: As United States Defence Secretary Leon Panetta began his historic visit to New Zealand last Friday, an equally significant exchange was taking place in Suva. China's second-ranked politician, Wu Bangguo, was in the Fijian capital for talks with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, as part of the growing bond between the two countries.
Mr Panetta's visit to Auckland underscored the rapid thaw in the relationship between New Zealand and the US. Mr Wu's visit to Suva underscored the principal reason for America suddenly being so keen to cosy up after three decades of cold shouldering over the ban on nuclear ship visits.
New Zealand is of increasing strategic importance to the US as it seeks to curb China's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. That is why it is prepared to put its displeasure with our nuclear-free status aside for the sake of building stronger military and political ties.
As a result, the US has now all but scrapped the restrictions on military contact with New Zealand. While in Auckland, Mr Panetta announced that the humiliating ban on New Zealand ships visiting American naval ports would be lifted, and a presidential waiver would no longer be needed before top brass from each country's armed forces could meet formally.
He even went so far as to signal tripartite military exercises between the US, New Zealand and Australia - a return to Anzus in all but name - and revealed that the US would consider stationing troops here if asked.
The rapprochement is welcome, but must not be allowed to overshadow New Zealand's own strategic interests. They include building closer ties with China, a fast-emerging economic powerhouse which is now our second biggest trading partner and crucial to our future prosperity.
As Victoria University Centre for Strategic Studies director Robert Ayson pointed out in this newspaper on Tuesday, those competing interests can be easily managed because the relationship between the US and China is, on the whole, relatively benign. But at some point in the future, they are bound to fall out, and New Zealand needs to take care it is not stuck in the middle.
It is therefore essential for New Zealand to continue to exercise an independent foreign policy, something Prime Minister John Key emphasised during Mr Panetta's visit. Our interests and objectives are not synonymous with those of the US.
The global balance of power, both militarily and economically, has undergone a seismic shift since the Cold War ended. That change has brought a new focus to this country's foreign and trade policies, which are now very much geared towards Asia.
Yes, the relationship with the US remains important, and yes, we share many of its strategic interests. It makes sense for both countries to be, as former United States secretary of state Colin Powell put it, ''very, very, very good friends'', even allies. But we have more than one friend, and must guard against being put in a position where we might have to choose between them.
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