How far will McCully and Key rebalance foreign policy?

How will the relationship with Australia go long-term? Where does China fit? These questions will be teased out at two forums later this week. The large shadow on the wall at both will be the United States. Where is the government on this?

At Victoria University on Thursday offshore luminaries, among them China expert Michael Wesley, director of the high-powered Sydney-based Lowy Institute thinktank, will explore the economic, security, domestic and diplomatic dimensions of “Australia, New Zealand and China’s rise”.

On Friday at the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum Wesley will lead debate on a “long-term vision” for Australia and New Zealand which will scan Asia’s strategic and economic rise, (in)stability in the South Pacific and managing a regional economy based on China.

In a speech in February Wesley outlined Australia’s “choices in 2011”. New Zealand didn’t rate a mention. A similar scan in New Zealand could not credibly omit reference to Australia.

That asymmetry is one perennial trans-Tasman difference. Another is the divergent strategic perspectives. From Wellington the China-Australasia-United States triangle looks different from how it looks from Canberra.

Julia Gillard calls us mates, turns up to the Christchurch memorial and earlier in her speech to Parliament divined our bond in blood spilt on “sacred ground” and “young men in trenches” and not in our enmeshed societies and economies where it actually lies. Since Gallipoli we have as often warred (or not) separately as together.

In Washington in March Gillard was pictured aglow and declared Australia a “true friend downunder”. Australia’s Defence White Paper in 2009 fingered China as a potential threat. It is no surprise that Australia’s bid for a free trade agreement is stalled. A major element in China’s decision to do one with us was its perception of New Zealand as “independent” of the United States.

Are Murray McCully and John Key edging nearer Australia’s position? If so, where will that place us in a world where China — and, coming up, India — increasingly contest economic, then political and eventually military power with the United States and Europe?

Last November’s Defence White Paper was more circumspect about China than Australia’s.

But Centre for Strategic Studies director Robert Ayson (formerly of Australian National University, so he knows both sides) has trawled through background documents and, as he says in a new paper, has found a slightly more sanguine assessment.

China is changing the “strategic balance”, the cabinet was told in mid-2010, which will put international and regional institutions “under pressure”. More pointedly, a “defence assessment” by officials at that time scanned possible conflict in north Asia, “precipitated by a dispute in China’s maritime periphery”. This recognises that China claims three sets of islands off its coast and is becoming more assertive.

Ayson also detects in the White Paper a decidedly warmer tone than in the Helen Clark-era 2001 “defence statement” towards what the White Paper calls “like-minded states” (Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States), partnerships with which are “grounded in common traditions, experiences and values” and “made concrete by the sharing of risks in operations around the globe”.

Now factor in the United States’ re-engagement with Asia under Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton’s “Wellington declaration” in November of friendship and more regular high-level meetings and, in February, the United States delegation’s warmth at the bilateral dialogue in Christchurch.

It was Key’s turn to glow.

Then note Clinton’s testimony in early March to the Senate to ward off cuts in the foreign service budget. According to the Financial Times account, she highlighted “unbelievable” competition with China for influence over islands in the Pacific.

The implication: New Zealand has a part to play in that competition, since New Zealand has influence of its own in the South Pacific. Realpolitik (to use Clinton’s word) requires an end to the lingering grumpiness in some corners of Washington over the anti-nuclear policy.

Australia is clear about where it fits: close ally, hand-in-glove, fast into Iraq in 2003, up-close collaboration in Afghanistan, in return for a shield in Asia.

New Zealand has a more complex calculation: balancing the kith-and-kin connections with the United States against the more important economic interests in China and a need to keep Australia sweet. The nightmare for New Zealand would be to be pressed to take sides in a China-United States standoff.

But it’s hard work cosying up to China, which has radically different history and values. At least, as the White Paper noted, we share with India cricket, English and the Commonwealth. The White Paper didn’t even mention big, burgeoning Indonesia.

Under McCully and Key the balance has tilted back a bit. It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary — but a step away from the Clark doctrine.