The Marine Corps may get tapped to help New Zealand build its amphibious capabilities under a renewed partnership with the U.S. military, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters.
Panetta, on the final leg of Asia travels that took him to Japan and China, reiterated the U.S. commitment to engage allies and new friends in the Asia-Pacific region, saying, “a stronger defense partnership with New Zealand is absolutely vital to this effort.”
“For the past several years, our militaries have begun building a deeper partnership to tackle a wider range of security issues,” Panetta said during a Sept. 21 joint news conference in Auckland with New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman. That partnership includes a strategic U.S.-New Zealand agreement signed June 19 at the Pentagon that followed a similar agreement of cooperation signed in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, last year.
Panetta said areas for possible closer cooperation include “increasing cooperation in the South Pacific, building New Zealand’s amphibious capacity in order to tackle some common challenges and by working multilaterally to build the capacity of other security partners in peacekeeping efforts and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, all important missions in this area.”
The new bilateral relationship is “going to create opportunities for our military people to increasingly get to know each other over time,” Coleman said.
Panetta laid a wreath at the Auckland War Memorial Museum during his two-day visit. It had been 30 years since a U.S. defense secretary visited the country after a chill prompted in 1987, when New Zealand adopted an anti-nuclear law that bans any vessel carrying nuclear weapons or powered by nuclear reactors within its waters. In turn, the Pentagon refused to acknowledge the presence or existence of nuclear weapons on its ships, and no Navy ship or Coast Guard vessel has visited New Zealand since.
This year has seen a warming of military ties. In April, New Zealand hosted a group of Marines with Japan-based III Marine Expeditionary Force troops, the first joint training in 30 years. The Kiwis in June sent three dozen military engineers to Camp Pendleton, Calif., for a weeklong training exercise, and a group with I MEF from Camp Pendleton went to New Zealand in an exchange program.
For the first time, New Zealand sent two navy ships to Hawaii for the biannual Rim of the Pacific exercises this year. But because of its anti-nuclear stance, under a Pentagon policy, both ships were relegated to berthing in Honolulu’s Aloha Tower piers rather than Pearl Harbor, where the Navy berths its Pacific Fleet and hosted nearly two dozen foreign ships visiting for the multinational war games.
But the welcome mat could be out next time.
Panetta told reporters he is considering waiving the Pentagon policy if New Zealand decides to send its ships to the United States.
“I suspect that soon we’ll be able to see one of those ships be able to come into our ports, and we would welcome that,” he said.
Panetta stopped short of saying whether the policy would be overturned and whether U.S. ships will return to New Zealand for port visits and training. “Let’s see where that takes us in the future,” he said.