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Panetta lifts ban on New Zealand ship visits to U.S. ports

By Star-Advertiser staff and news services

LAST UPDATED: 7:20 p.m. HST, Sep 20, 2012

AUCKLAND, New Zealand >> U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted a ban on New Zealand naval ship visits to the U.S. imposed in response to a 1987 New Zealand law prohibiting port stops by nuclear-armed and powered vessels in the Kiwi country.

The ban became an international embarrassment during Rim of the Pacific war games in Hawaii this summer when two New Zealand warships had to tie up at touristy Aloha Tower in Honolulu Harbor while even former Cold War foe Russia was allowed to park its ships in Pearl Harbor.

The Royal New Zealand Navy had been invited here for RIMPAC exercises for the first time in 28 years, but the long-standing military port ban was still in effect.

The Kiwi frigate Te Kaha and tanker Endeavour had to tie up at Aloha Tower — much to the delight of restaurants Gordon Biersch and Hooters.

 New Zealand Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman was quoted as saying he found out only when someone drew his attention to a Star-Advertiser article about the Pearl Harbor port ban. 

The change will promote better military ties between the two countries, Panetta said today alongside Coleman.

Defense ties between the two countries have been moribund since New Zealand passed a law in 1987 that banned nuclear-armed and powered ships from entering its ports. The law damaged military and political ties and ended New Zealand’s involvement in a defense treaty with the U.S. that included Australia.

The relationship has thawed since 2000, assisted by New Zealand sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. defense officials traveling with Panetta said. Ten New Zealand troops have died in Afghanistan, including the country’s first female combat death.

Asked whether the decision to give New Zealand access to American bases could lead to a resumption of U.S. Navy ship calls in New Zealand, Panetta said, “Let’s see where it takes us.”

A senior U.S. official said officials from the two countries have held informal discussions on whether New Zealand might be open to revising its anti-nuclear law as a step toward resuming U.S. ship visits. But the law remains highly popular in New Zealand, making changes any time soon unlikely.

Jonathan Coleman, New Zealand’s defense minister, said at the news conference that “New Zealand has made it very clear that the policy remains unchanged and will remain unchanged.”

New Zealand, which has a tiny military, wants to build up its amphibious operations capability, in part to make it better able to respond to humanitarian disasters and peacekeeping in the South Pacific. The Pentagon is eager to help, a senior U.S. official said.

This year, U.S. Marines, who specialize in amphibious operations, visited New Zealand for the first time in at least 25 years to mark the anniversary of Marines deploying there during World War II.

U.S. officials said Panetta did not discuss easing the long-standing policy that bars American Navy and Coast Guard ships from entering New Zealand ports or territorial waters.

Panetta’s two-day stopover was the first visit to New Zealand by a U.S. Defense secretary since Caspar Weinberger in 1982 and is part of a wide-ranging administration effort to rebuild military ties in Asia and around the Pacific as a decade of war in the Middle East and South Asia winds down.

In the South Pacific, the U.S. is concerned about China extending its economic reach to the small island chains and atolls of the region - a major impetus behind Washington’s goal of improving relations across the region. New Zealand has a free-trade agreement with China and growing economic ties.

Panetta’s visit comes less than a month after Secretary of State Hillary Rodhan Clinton went to the Cook Islands for a diplomatic forum, and it follows the June signing of the Washington Declaration between the U.S. and New Zealand calling for closer military cooperation.

Star-Advertiser reporter William Cole, Bloomberg News and McClatchy News Service contributed to this story.

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