Should New Zealand have a closer relationship with the US?
Prime Minister John Key and United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have signalled a step-up in military training and cooperation between the two countries.
At a joint press conference this afternoon Mrs Clinton praised this week's Defence White Paper released by New Zealand and its commitment to being close security partners over coming years.
''We want to cooperate across the board in every aspect of our civilian efforts and our military as well,'' Mrs Clinton said after signing a ''Wellington Declaration'' eastablishing a new strategic partnership between the two countries.
She said there was a procedure to look at military cooperation on a case by case basis at the moment - put in place in the wake of the ANZUS rift over New Zealand's nuclear policy.
''If possible we want to do more. We are exploring that as an opportunity for our respective militaries to consult over. For example more joint training and exchanges among our officers. Opportunities where we can do joint exercises together,'' Mrs Clinton said.
But she would leave that for consultations between the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and New Zealand's Defence Minister Wayne Mapp.
Mr Key said it was important and significant for New Zealand to extend training exercises with US forces, and stressed this country's commitment - outlined in the White Paper - to beef up frontline military capability.
But in farewelling Mrs Clinton, Mr Key made one of his trademark gaffes, referring to her as ''President Clinton''. In response she laughed but put her hand to her forehead.
Mr Key said the declaration had turned a "very important page" in the relationship.
The two agreed that it was at its strongest in 25 years.
On trade issues, Mrs Clinton stressed the importance of the Trans Pacific Partnership talks. Though she did not 'rule out or in" bilateral talks with New Zealand she made it clear the TPP was the priority.
Mrs Clinton said she had enjoyed her visit to Wellington - "the coolest little capital in the world".
Her visit was part of a "committed, concerted" effort in the region.
The US was "particularly grateful" for New Zealand's leadership on nuclear non-proliferation.
Mr McCully said the US had stepped up its engagement in the region, which New Zealand appreciated.
Mr Key said the talks had covered a range of issues, including New Zealand's involvement in Afghanistan.
Mrs Clinton thanked New Zealand for its contribution and sacrifice in Afghanistan and mentioned the death of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell in August.
"New Zealand punches way above its weight in every sector of challenge in the world today."
The declaration calls for greater cooperation in the Pacific, on climate change, trade and scientific exchanges.
"Our governments and peoples share a deep and abiding interest in maintaining peace, prosperity and stability in the region, expanding the benefits of freer and more open trade, and promoting and protecting freedom, democracy and human rights worldwide."
It says the two countries share a "long history" of sacrifice in battle.
There would be a new focus on practical cooperation in the Pacific region and ''enhanced political and subject-matter expert dialogue - including regular Foreign Ministers' meetings and political-military discussions''.
Earlier today Mrs Clinton arrived at Parliament to be greeted with an official powhiri.
Mrs Clinton was accompanied by several armed plain clothes police plus members of her own security detail as she made her way onto Parliament's forecourt.
A kaumatua explained the powhiri as she moved towards the traditional welcome.
She was then greeted by Speaker Lockwood Smith, Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully ahead of formal meeting aimed at cementing the warmer US-New Zealand relationship this afternoon.
She stopped at the top of Parliament's steps and turned and waved to a small but supportive crowd on the lawn, who cheered and clapped.
The supporters are due to be replaced with protesters later in the day demonstrating against the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Security around Parliament is the tightest it has been in years, with heavily armed and armoured special forces police, rooftop snipers and uniformed officers carrying long batons.
Helicopters have been flying overhead and security crews have been in place all morning in preparation for the visit.
The security include members of Mrs Clinton's detail as well as member of the New Zealand diplomatic squad and what are believed to be the police special tactics group.
Mrs Clinton braved the cold and blustery Wellington weather in an unscheduled walk along the waterfront this morning.
Wearing a black overcoat and a blue scarf and sporting brown sun glasses, she was followed by around 10 men in suits, including members of the United States secret service and New Zealand's diplomatic protection service as she strode through Waitangi Park about 10am.
She had arrived in Wellington four hours earlier from Papua New Guinea as part of her 10-day Asia/Pacific tour.
Her blue and white modified Boeing 757 landed at Wellington's military terminal at 6.08am, where she was greeted by a cluster of government and embassy officials.
CYCLING MAYOR IN WELCOMING PARTY
The welcome party also included Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown, who arrived at the terminal at 4.55am on her bicycle wearing a high-visibility vest.
At the bottom of the plane's steps Clinton shook hands with US ambassador David Huebner, foreign affairs minister Murray McCully and mayor Wade-Brown.
The group then walked quickly through the terminal, with Clinton climbing into a waiting black BMW - part of a 14-vehicle convoy headed for town.
VISIT TO STRENGTHEN TIES
Mrs Clinton's trip is only the second by a US Secretary of State in a decade and is seen as highly symbolic.
It is expected to cement the steadily improving relationship between New Zealand and the US and herald a new level of military cooperation and top-level ties.
She is expected to sign the Wellington Declaration, which will cover areas of greater cooperation including the Pacific, climate change, trade and scientific exchanges.
It is also likely to acknowledge the international efforts of both countries on nuclear non-proliferation.
The visit also follows a review of New Zealand-US relations early this year that resulted in an acknowledgement by the US that the relationship had "under performed" in the past two decades.
There has since been a concerted effort for increased cooperation, including on the military front, where exercises, top-level exchanges and joint training have for decades operated under a cumbersome system requiring a presidential waiver. It was one of several reprisals for New Zealand's anti-nuclear legislation.
Prime Minister John Key confirmed yesterday that the waiver had been largely done away with as a pre-condition of contact.
"The main change happened some time ago - that's to work together toward a more permissive regime.
"Essentially the way we operate now, instead of having to get approval for training exercises, for the most part it's reversed - unless it's actually prohibited it's permitted, unless we need presidential sign off."
He would not say which activities still needed sign-off, though they appear limited in nature.
Mr Key will hold formal talks with Mrs Clinton in Wellington this afternoon and host a barbecue featuring wild boar sausages, whitebait and pavlova at Premier House for her tonight.
She visits Christchurch tomorrow before leaving on Saturday.
Mrs Clinton's visit comes amid tight security.
A large contingent of gun-toting police was on hand to protect her when she flew into Wellington this morning, including two vans of heavily-armed special tactics squad officers wearing balaclavas.
Before the arrival, special tactics personnel and the diplomatic protection squad spent an hour positioning convoy vehicles, including two police motorbikes.
A specialist search team first scoured the terminal building, then the runway, for potential threats.
Convoy vehicles and the secretary's accommodation were also to be checked before the arrival using explosives detector dogs.
Media waiting for Clinton's arrival had to be security checked.
- VERNON SMALL, JOHN HARTEVELT, TRACY WATKINS, KIRSTY JOHNSTON and MARTIN KAY with NZPA
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