Closer US-NZ ties within 'comfort zone'

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 24/02/2014

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Danny Russel, United States Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific, picks his words carefully when the inevitable questions arise about US naval visits to New Zealand.

"We're focused on expanding co-operation, including in the security area, in ways that are within the comfort zone of both countries," Russel says after his first official visit to New Zealand for formal talks with his New Zealand counterpart.

The block on ship visits to New Zealand by the US Navy is, of course, the last remaining symbol of the longstanding irritant in the relationship since the bust-up over New Zealand's nuclear-free legislation nearly 30 years ago.

The resulting freeze in relations only fully thawed in 2010 when former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton came to New Zealand to sign the Wellington Declaration, committing both countries to closer co-operation and an annual "strategic dialogue" between officials.

The latest dialogue in Wellington last week passed with little fanfare, a sign of how far things have come.

Previously the special adviser to President Barack Obama for East Asia and the Pacific on the National Security Council, Mr Russel's trip to New Zealand was his first, both in an official and unofficial category.

A career diplomat, Mr Russel is credited by the US State Department with playing a key role in the Obama Administration's so-called "pivot to Asia", which sought to increase its presence in the region.

It was under that strategy that, after decades of maintaining an arm's length relationship, the US dropped its ban on military exercises and training with New Zealand defence personnel in protest at the anti-nuclear legislation.

It also resumed full intelligence sharing and only last year finally dropped its ban on New Zealand naval vessels visiting US military installations, after an outcry over a New Zealand naval frigate being forced to tie up at a civilian wharf during exercises in Hawaii.

In the interim, US forces have deployed to New Zealand for exercises, including a big exercise involving US Marines recently.

But ship visits may be the one gesture that falls beyond the comfort zone of both countries.

This year's strategic dialogue focused on areas including regional security, co-operation in the Pacific, climate change, possible NZ contributions to peacekeeping at hot spots around the world and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Over a working dinner between Russel and his New Zealand counterpart, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade chief executive John Allen, international trade talks were also discussed.

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Russel said finalising the Trans-Pacific Partnership remained a high priority to both countries. That suggests New Zealand and the US are not as far apart on issues such as Pharmac as previously thought.

Russel said there were clearly still areas of disagreement. But the prize - in terms of jobs and economic growth and, for New Zealand, easier access to the US and other markets - made a successful conclusion of the TPP important for both countries.

- Stuff

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