Don Brash, when leader of the National Party, was credited (or discredited) with having promised an American congressional delegation this country's anti-nuclear policy would be gone by lunchtime if National won the 2005 election. It didn't win and leaked US diplomatic cables subsequently cast doubts on whether Dr Brash made the remark.
But Labour dined out on the “gone by lunchtime” claim for some time, maintaining it showed National would scrap or weaken the country's opposition to nuclear ship visits. A TV3 poll at the time showed most New Zealanders believed National was not sincere about keeping nuclear ships out.
Since 2008 National has been in power and at the weekend momentous decisions regarding the military relationship with the US were announced. They did not include scrapping this country's nuclear-ship policy. But the US will allow New Zealand ships to enter US ports for the first time since New Zealand was suspended from the Anzus Treaty over its anti-nuclear stance in 1985.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said it heralded a "new era" in the New Zealand-US relationship. Both countries acknowledged differences of opinion in "limited areas", but they would not stand in the way of greater engagement on security issues. Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman more emphatically said New Zealand had made clear it would not shift its anti-nuclear stance, but this did not prevent co-operation.
The lifting of the ban comes as US foreign and defence policy is more sharply focused on the Pacific in a belated response to China's edging its way into the region. But what are China's strategic interests, what are the US interests, how can they be reconciled, and how are this country's interests best served?
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at the Pacific Islands Forum this month, emphasised the region was big enough for big powers to stay and co-operate. Here's hoping she is right. Australia, China and the US are our top trading partners and we have other close relationships with all three. If geo-political rivalry turns co-operation into confrontation, we will have some hard decisions to make (not necessarily by lunchtime) in favour of some partners over others.
- © Fairfax NZ News