In January, New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor said Australia should "follow us": it should show respect to China.
A month earlier, newly installed Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, taking charge of a supine policy that for years had kept Beijing happy, suggested New Zealand could mediate between Australia and China. Both sides would have to make concessions, she said.
And, in March, 13 countries, including Australia, Britain, Canada and the US, expressed concern about Chinese obstruction of the World Health Organization's investigation into the origins of the pandemic. But New Zealand didn't say a word.
This has been going on for years. Australia, belatedly, has been standing up to China while New Zealand has kept its head down, spinelessly hoping to protect its exports.
It has said little about Beijing's attempt at annexing the South China Sea, taken a softer line than its allies on the crushing of Hong Kong, and as recently as January sought to deepen its economic dependence on China with an upgraded free-trade deal.
Admittedly, Wellington's obliging approach to the Chinese Communist Party may be waning now. It can't go on forever, anyway: there is no achievable level of deference that satisfies China.
Disputes will arise when the Kiwis find they can kowtow no lower. They will progressively lose access to the Chinese market.
As they get roughed up, they'll toughen up. They'll see that Australia was right all along. And, as they go through the process of waking up to themselves, we can sit back with a box of popcorn and watch.
New Zealand woke up a bit last month when it called out malicious cyber activity by China. In doing so, it joined with Australia, Britain, Canada, the EU, Japan and the US - so it did not seem particularly bold. But, if New Zealand had followed its former modus operandi, it would have let its friends take the heat of making the public statement while its embassy in Beijing just delivered a private tut-tut.
So, there's progress across the Tasman.
Wellington's public complaint prompted the Chinese embassy to get on its high horse and issue the sort of meaningless blather that we've become used to in Australia. It told New Zealand to drop its "Cold War mentality" and stop "manipulating political issues" with "mudslinging".
That one about Cold War mentality has been running for a few years now, and it always brings a smile to my face - because it exactly describes the way that China looks out on the world.
The cyber dispute has given New Zealand exporters a warning that Chinese markets are not assured. The clever ones will take notice and wind down commitments that rely on access to China.
The not-so-clever ones will tell themselves that all is well. As relations worsen, they will probably be heard complaining that New Zealand should have shown China a bit more respect.
Australian exporters should have known at least four years ago that the Chinese market was becoming doubtfully accessible. There can't be many left now that still have business plans that rely heavily on China.
Exporters of iron ore are an exception to that, because China needs the material. It's trying to find other sources, however, and we should hope that BHP, Fortescue and Rio Tinto have some idea of when China will redirect its contracts.
In noticing New Zealand's move toward Asia-Pacific reality, we should not be too proud. Australia realised before other Western countries that a firmer stance was needed, but it should have understood much earlier than it did.
Tony Abbott last week admitted that, in retrospect, Australia seemed to have indulged in wishful thinking in 2014 when it negotiated a free-trade deal with China. But the government had been confident then that China would liberalise politically, he said, implying that it had also been expected to behave itself internationally.
This must have come from reading academic articles, because the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in those days told ministers to expect no change in the Chinese political system.
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There was, however, a popular academic idea, quietly promoted by officials in Beijing, that the Chinese people would demand movement toward democracy as they became richer and got more economic freedom.
In my 16 years in the country I often wondered whether foreign purveyors of such theories spent much time with ordinary Chinese people. I never noticed even the slightest trend toward democratic awakening among people I met.
Abbott, now a trade adviser to the British government, mentioned the 2014 viewpoint in a discussion organised by the London think tank Policy Exchange. His comments were a warning to British business managers.
Even if they didn't get his message, they may hear a few comments from Beijing soon enough, because the Royal Navy has deployed one of its two enormous new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to this side of the world. The ship and its task group are in the South China Sea, sending a message that China doesn't own it.
Well, that won't make the CCP happy.
Businesses need to think about more than just the risk to sales. Abbott made the important point that relying on Chinese supply could also be a mistake.
"As Australia has found, the Beijing government sees trade as a strategic weapon to be turned on and off like a tap, to reward friends and to punish foes," he said.
"In my judgment, it should be every business's concern to minimise the critical place that Chinese intermediate goods might have in our supply chains, lest they be denied just when they're most needed."
Too right. So there's another problem for managers to think about: could China kill your enterprise by withholding supply?
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.
- This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.