While units from more than 20 countries gathered in Pearl Harbor for this summer's RIMPAC 2012 exercises, New Zealand naval ships Endeavour and Te Kaha were forced to dock at the Aloha Tower in nearby Honolulu, Hawaii. (New Zealand Defence Force)
AUCKLAND — The United States has lifted a ban that prevented New Zealand naval ships from visiting U.S. ports or bases since the 1980s, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sept. 21, hailing a “new era” in relations between the two nations.
The policy change, part of efforts to bolster security ties, will “allow the U.S. Secretary of Defense to authorize individual visits to Department of Defense or Coast Guard facilities in the United States and around the world,” he said.
“I suspect that soon we’ll be able to see one of those ships in our ports,” he added when asked when New Zealand vessels would stop in the United States.
In a joint news conference with his New Zealand counterpart, Jonathan Coleman, the Pentagon chief also announced that restrictions on meetings between defense officials and military exercises also had been rescinded.
“These changes I think are important and are in the interests of both our nations,” he said.
The announcement underscored improving defense ties between the two countries since a chill during the Cold War, when New Zealand imposed a ban on any visits by U.S. nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships to its ports.
“While we acknowledge that our countries continue to have differences of opinion in some limited areas, today we have affirmed that we are embarking on a new course that will not let these differences stand in the way of greater engagement on security issues,” Panetta added.
The Australia, New Zealand, United States Security (ANZUS) treaty was suspended between Wellington and Washington in 1986 amid concerns in Wellington about French nuclear tests in the South Pacific and U.S. foreign policy.
In return, the United States prohibited New Zealand naval ships from docking at American ports and bases.
But Coleman ruled out any change to New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy.
“We are in a new era, and I don’t think we should get hung up about trying to turn the clock back to pre-1986 because the reality is the relationship is very, very good,” Coleman said.
“In terms of restrictions from the New Zealand side, we are very clear about our policy, and the U.S. has been very understanding about that ... And we’ve moved on from the point where that is an issue.”
President Barack Obama’s administration has pushed to bolster military ties across the region as part of a strategic shift toward the Asia-Pacific, driven by concerns over China’s growing power.
Panetta’s trip to New Zealand was the first by a Pentagon chief in 30 years and the first since the ANZUS treaty was suspended between the two countries.
The Pentagon chief later visited the World War II Hall of Memories overlooking Auckland, paying respects to war dead, and then presented medals to five New Zealand troops who served in Afghanistan.
Panetta’s trip follows U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signing an agreement in 2010 formalizing a thaw in relations with Wellington, which called for deeper cooperation in combating climate change, the spread of nuclear weapons and extremism.
It also committed the two sides to promoting renewable energy and boosting capacities to fight natural disasters.