U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, right, is welcomed to Auckland, New Zealand, by Minister of Defence Dr. Jonathan Coleman, center, and U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner on Sept. 21. (Larry Downing / AFP, pool)
AUCKLAND — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta flew into New Zealand on Sept. 21, the first Pentagon chief to set foot in the country in 30 years, as the two countries seek to revive long-dormant security ties.
On the final leg of a week-long Asian tour, Panetta planned to thank New Zealand for its role in the Afghan war and to explore expanding defense ties that have begun to revive after a hiatus dating back to the 1980s, officials said.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in U.S.-New Zealand (military) relations,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters before Panetta landed in Auckland.
“There’s a lot room for growth in this relationship.”
The Pentagon chief wanted “to pay tribute, and thank Wellington for their sacrifices and support in Afghanistan,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They’ve done a lot good work there. They have punched well above their weight.”
Ten troops from New Zealand have lost their lives in the Afghan conflict, including five who were killed in two separate attacks in August.
New Zealand has pulled its special operation forces out of Afghanistan but retains 180 personnel there, with a “provisional reconstruction team” in the Bamiyan area.
In talks on Sept. 20 with his New Zealand counterpart Jonathan Coleman, the U.S. defense chief planned to discuss Washington’s policy shift towards the Asia-Pacific, and how the U.S. military could help Wellington build up amphibious capabilities for its military.
“New Zealand is ... developing its amphibious capabilities, and that’s something we have a great deal of experience with,” the official said.
But despite defense cooperation agreements signed between New Zealand and the United States in the past two years, officials said there were no plans to discuss scrapping a longstanding ban on U.S. nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships docking at New Zealand ports.
Due to the ban that dates back to the 1980s, the United States prohibits New Zealand naval ships from using military ports or facilities in the United States.
“I would just say we have had no discussions, no deliberations, no internal planning on that point,” the U.S. official said.
With New Zealand’s deep ties to South Pacific countries, the Pentagon hopes to work together with Wellington to cooperate more on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in the area.
Washington’s much-publicized tilt to the Pacific is widely seen as a response to China’s growing economic and military power in the region, but the official said talks with New Zealand were not designed to counter Beijing’s strong trade ties with the country.
“It’s not a zero sum game,” the official said. “This isn’t some sort of race between us and China. We take note of it, but the primary focus for us is our relationship with New Zealand bilaterally.”
Panetta arrived in Auckland after stops in Japan and China, where he had three days of high level talks and toured a naval station in Qingdao.
As part of the U.S. bid to shift to Asia, the U.S. military has unveiled plans to deploy a majority of its ships to the Pacific and has struck agreements with Australia, Singapore and other states to gain wider access to ports and bases in Southeast Asia.
But despite the attempt to “rebalance” U.S. policy towards the Pacific, recurring crises in the Middle East have absorbed Washington’s attention, including the deadly attack last week on an American consulate in Benghazi.