US keen to station troops in NZ: Panetta

The United States would consider stationing troops on New Zealand soil if our Government asked for them as part of a burgeoning defence relationship, US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta says.

Mr Panetta left New Zealand on Saturday after a whistlestop visit as part of a broader US push to shore up allegiances in the Pacific to counter China's rising influence in the region.

His visit marked a watershed in the relationship, after he announced the US would lift a ban on New Zealand naval ships using US ports, and scrap the requirement for a waiver before defence top brass from both countries meet.

Both measures were retaliation for New Zealand's anti-nuclear legislation, and Anzus split in the 1980s.

As the war in Afghanistan winds down, the US has begun repositioning its forces, including up to 2500 marines who could be deployed to Australia. It is also talking to Singapore and the Philippines about boosting its military presence there.

Asked yesterday if troops could be stationed in New Zealand, Mr Panetta said that was up to New Zealand. But he suggested the US would be interested.

"If New Zealand feels that that's something New Zealand would support or want, that's something I think that would be very helpful."

But he left the door shut on a return to the Anzus military alliance, which previously comprised New Zealand, the US and Australia.

He said that would not happen without "revisions" to New Zealand policy - a reference to both the anti-nuclear and independent foreign policies of our government, both of which Prime Minister John Key and Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman reiterated over the weekend were not up for debate. There was no invitation either to station US troops here.

Washington-based analyst Ernest Bower thought it unlikely that would happen, even under the US's new "pivot to Asia".

"I just have a hard time seeing any time in the near future American boots on the ground in New Zealand in any sustained way, in the same way as Australia [is planning]. Not because we don't want to, but I think the Americans would be very sensitive politically about how that would go down in New Zealand."

Meanwhile, Mr Panetta revealed New Zealand wanted US help setting up an amphibious force within the New Zealand defence force - one that is likely to be modelled on US marines.

"The marines are among the best in terms of that capability. And I would hope that . . . we could develop an approach where we could continue to do exercises, continue to provide training and assistance, continue to provide our expertise and try to build up New Zealand's capabilities so that you will be in a better position to be able to provide not only for your own security but help us in providing for the security of the Asia-Pacific region," Mr Panetta told TVNZ's Q+A.

Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said it was part of the New Zealand Defence Force strategy to work in a similar way to the US marine force over time. Fairfax NZ

Fairfax Media