OPINION: The visit from the American Secretary of Defence was important in itself.
Leon Panetta is the first such official to come to New Zealand since the ban on nuclear vessels and his presence signalled renewed strength in the bond between the two nations. But Panetta increased the visit's significance by reopening United States ports to the Royal New Zealand Navy - a more than symbolic move.
It will allow the flag to be shown, let RNZN personnel get to better know their opposite numbers in the US Navy and make joint exercises easier.
That the reopening comes while the ban remains on nuclear vessels coming here is conciliatory, which super powers do not show without good reasons. In this case it is the growing rivalry between America and China in the Pacific and their search for friends an allies. Both nations are increasing their forces and aid, seeking to keep their friends happy and strengthening trade links.
That contest is just about entirely the rationale for the renewed engagement of Washington with Wellington, not the warm words about a shared history and values that froth about meetings like that between Panetta and Key at the weekend.
The United States is practised in thinking hard-headedly about its own interests but it is uncertain if New Zealand is. This nation has been able to make a comparatively safe passage through history, whereas the US has been engaged in much of the hard going. It therefore can be almost guaranteed to make the realistic calculations about the future of the Pacific and it has the power to act on them.
New Zealand, at least in terms of its Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, shows few signs of such realism, but at least the tiny international affairs community here has the issue of big-power rivalry in the Pacific high on its agenda.
The consensus is that New Zealand has its own interests in the conflict and should not subsume them in ties to Washington or Beijing.
The calculus is simple in outline: New Zealand emphatically shares the ideals and practices of American democracy rather than Chinese dictatorship; we also with America favour an open economy and free trade; but New Zealand must engage with the economic dynamism of Asia, typified most impressively by China; we must also accept that China will increasingly exercise its influence in the South Pacific.
Over-riding all those calculations is New Zealand's interest in keeping the US-China relationship peaceful and productive. War or aggressive stand-off between the two big powers would threaten our prosperity and continued viability as a nation.
Whatever the doomsday talk that sometimes emerges, the reality is that both China and America have an overwhelming interest in keeping the peace between them. Their economies depend on each other and neither could expect to emerge unmauled from military conflict.
War's unlikeliness does not make New Zealand's course any easier. Progress will require clever navigation guided by the need to look to our own best interests. It would be a mistake, for instance, to bind ourselves too firmly to a military alliance with the US or to enter a trade pact that shuts China out. In those and most Pacific matters, New Zealand should remain engaged but independent and unencumbered.
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