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Corin Dann: US visit further thaws the nuclear ice

opinion Corin Dann

By Corin Dann ONE News Political Editor

Published: 10:38AM Friday September 21, 2012 Source: ONE News

6.00PM UPDATE: Since I wrote this post earlier today, Leon Panetta has announced that NZ navy ships will be allowed into US military ports and that face-to-face defence talks are back on the agenda at last.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's arrival in Auckland today is a hugely symbolic event in the context of New Zealand's defence relationship with the US.

Because while relations have been steadily improving between the two countries for some years now, no US Defense Secretary has actually set foot here for 30 years.

Actually making the effort to come and visit New Zealand says to the world that the relationship is now in good heart, and that both sides are able to move on from the anti-nuclear ships dispute.

A big factor behind the visit though is likely to be the US's general renewed interest in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Obama administration has targeted an increased presence in the area as part of its new defence strategy and will station more military resources in the region.

The US denies that the move is about trying in any way to contain the growing influence of China.

However, defence analysts in New Zealand say there is little doubt that rivalry between the two superpowers in the Asia-Pacific zone is growing.

And they say it's hardly surprising that the US would want to ensure a stronger presence.

Given that, it's also hardly surprising then that the US is suddenly perhaps a bit more interested in a stable, pro-Western democratic nation in the Pacific such as New Zealand.

It's an interesting position for New Zealand to be in, one that defence analysts say presents New Zealand with some tricky long-term decisions.

We have after all fostered a pretty close trade and investment relationship with China over the last few years.

However I think it would be wrong to think that visit by Panetta is only driven by China.

It also represents the fact that relations between the New Zealand and the US have almost got back to ally status on the back of two new defence relationships signed under the National Government.

The formal visit here is in many ways the next natural next step in the relationship rebuild.

Thirty years of strained relations is a long time. Attitudes and officials change and it may be too that the anger or frustration over the anti-nuclear stance is simply no longer as prevalent as it was in the Pentagon.

Although it should be noted that there are still sticking points.

New Zealand Navy ships were after all still (due to an old Presidential Order) blocked from docking at Pearl Harbour this year when visiting for joint military exercises.

However, hopes are high in New Zealand that during this visit the US may even scrap this rule for future exercises.

If they do, then it will inevitably prompt questions as to whether New Zealand could one day (even with its anti-nuclear stance) re-join the formal ANZUS alliance involving the US and Australia.

It's a question that hopefully Leon Panetta and his counterpart Jonathan Coleman can shed some light on in coming days.

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