US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta has announced the relaxation of restrictions on New Zealand ship visits to American ports.
Panetta made the announcement in Auckland during his visit to New Zealand - the first for 30 years for an American defence secretary.
He also announced the lifting of existing restrictions on talks between senior military personnel, which had previously required a waiver from the US.
Panetta said the relaxation of restrictions on New Zealand naval ships signalled a new era in the relationship and a drive to deepen cooperation between the two countries.
Panetta, who was welcomed to Auckland's Government House with a traditional powhiri this afternoon, is in the country for talks with defence minister Jonathan Coleman. He leaves tomorrow after a barbecue with Prime Minister John Key.
Talks are likely to include Afghanistan, the US military's new focus on Asia and the Pacific and the step up in military training and exercises between the two countries.
The lifting of the ban on New Zealand warships entering American military ports came after our navy was snubbed last year during a major multi-national naval exercise off Hawaii.
After being invited to the Rimpac exercise for the first time in 28 years, the Kiwis were blocked from berthing at Pearl Harbour, and forced to dock at a civilian port downtown.
The ban was one of the remaining vestiges of a "presidential waiver" system slapped in place by the US in retaliation for New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation. Other restrictions, including intelligence sharing and a ban on training and exercises together, have since been lifted.
Lifting the other remaining vestiges of the nuclear stand-off are also expected to be revisited.
GOOD FRIENDS AGAIN
After a 30-year standoff, the US and New Zealand are making up for lost time. Beneath the quiet diplomacy there has been an aggressive push to step up co-operation between our armed forces.
At "synchronisation talks" at the start of this year a new course was laid out by senior defence personnel from both countries: there was to be a gear change from the previous focus on co-operation and humanitarian work in the Pacific, to more direct military exercises and training.
The most visible of those was New Zealand's invitation to Rimpac. It used to be a standing joke that there were only two countries in the world not invited to the monster display of military might - North Korea and New Zealand.
This year's guest list included 22 nations, 42 ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel. The vestiges of the old grudges over the Anzus rift were not eradicated, however.
The New Zealanders were required to dock at a civilian port, away from the American warships at Pearl Harbour, a hangover from the old system that for years required a presidential waiver before any military-to-military exchange.
Other exercises have been less visible. In February, New Zealand joined nine other countries taking part in Exercise Bold Alligator on America's east coast, one of the biggest joint and multinational amphibious assault exercises in a decade.
In June, Operation Galvanic Kiwi saw our troops train alongside marine combat engineers in the US.
And in April, 35 Marines and 41 army personnel participated with New Zealand and British troops during the 10-day Exercise Alam Halfa, held in the central North Island.
Ernest Bower, of Washington-based Centre for Strategic Studies, said the step-up in the defence relationship fell under the umbrella of US President Barack Obama's much-trumpeted "pivot to Asia", a US strategy " to really shore up and improve relations that should have made sense across Asia years ago".
"It means visiting, it means senior level exchanges on a regular basis, and it means institutionalising this relationship and that is clearly what this visit [by Secretary Panetta] is all about."
But most defence analysts also see the "pivot" strategy as one that is aimed primarily at containing China.
The trip has sparked the usual flurry over ship visits. An American report quoting unnamed US officials as suggesting Panetta would announce the resumption of US warship visits sparked a phone call from Washington to Coleman on Monday night reassuring him that was not the case.
Bower says a ship visit anytime soon is unlikely and it would cut across the quiet diplomacy of recent years aimed at reassuring Kiwis that getting closer to the Americans does not mean sacrificing nuclear-free New Zealand.
"It's a quiet evolution . . . and if you think about the guys who run the relationship, that's where they want to be. I notice New Zealand leaders are not chest-beating, except when it comes to sports of course. In terms of diplomacy and security relations, I think everybody would want to carefully and slowly keep doing things to keep expanding that list."
But if ship visits are the last bastion, three-way exercises involving the old Anzus allies, New Zealand, the US, and Australia, are almost as sensitive. None have been held so far, in recognition of the old sensitivities.
But Bower says no-one is in any hurry to push the relationship ahead faster than people are comfortable with.
And as for the Pearl Harbour snub, that fence would be mended over time. "Some of the older guys in our navy still carry some baggage, and there are some in New Zealand who still feel pretty strongly about this stuff.
"Some of those guys are still around and maybe one of them was in charge of parking."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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