Bond with US needs work

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 23/09/2012
key panetta
PETER MEECHAM
BEST BUDDIES: US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta shares a lighthearted moment with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key at Villa Maria Estate in Auckland, where the pair met yesterday for talks over lunch.

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A key figure in the tumultuous Anzus bust-up says New Zealand and the United States still have unfinished business, despite both countries hailing a "new era" in the relationship.

US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta yesterday returned home on his so-called Doomsday Plane, designed to withstand a nuclear attack, after touching down for a day and a half in Auckland for talks with Prime Minister John Key, Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman and others.

He used the trip to clear away two of the remaining obstacles to the resumption of a full military relationship between the two countries, including a humiliating ban on New Zealand naval vessels entering US military and Coastguard facilities.

The requirement for a waiver of the nuclear-ship ban before defence top brass from both countries can talk has also been dropped.

The US only recently dropped its longstanding ban on military training and exercises with New Zealand after our soldiers served side by side with theirs on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

The sanctions date back to the bust-up over New Zealand's anti-nuclear legislation - a row that was inflamed in 1985 when former Labour Prime Minister David Lange refused an American warship, the USS Buchanan, entry to New Zealand ports because the US does not confirm or deny whether its ships have nuclear capabilities.

The abandonment of most of the remaining sanctions after a near 30-year rift comes only after the US finally accepted New Zealand would never abandon its nuclear-free legislation.

Key and Coleman reaffirmed that after Panetta's announcement.

But Lange's close aide - and later his wife - Margaret Pope, said the war of wills over the nuclear-free standoff had not been won yet. "It's not quite finished. They [the US] have still got to finish it," she said.

Until the US accepted New Zealand's longstanding invitation for a Coastguard vessel to visit, the two countries would continue to have a difference of opinion over the nuclear-free legislation.

Key said the Panetta visit showed the US was "deadly serious" about starting a new era in the relationship.

The step-up in the relationship has included the US sharing expertise with our military as it sets up a new amphibious force like the US marines for operating in and around the Pacific. It also saw New Zealand invited back to Rimpac, a giant multilaterial military exercise off the Hawaiian coast, for the first time in 28 years.

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But in a humiliating snub, our sailors were told to tie up at a civilian port downtown, after being refused permission to dock alongside other military vessels.

Key said the American ship ban was a "relic of the past".

Meanwhile, Key revealed that four SAS soldiers sent to Kabul after the deaths of five New Zealand soldiers in Bamiyan were gathering intelligence against those responsible for the killings.

And he defended revealing their presence after being accused of endangering their lives.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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