New Zealand is hosting the United States Secretary of Defense today in a symbolic visit that could signal a move towards restoring defence ties between the two countries.
While the Government says it will not be changing its long-standing ban on nuclear powered ships, ONE News understands the US has been considering whether to drop its ban on New Zealand navy ships in American military ports.
Leon Panetta's arrival, the first time in the 30 years that a US Secretary of Defense has visited, shows the "great progress we have made in the defence relationship over the last couple of years," said Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman.
TV ONE will feature the only New Zealand interview with Secretary Panetta on Q+A this Sunday at 9am.
The last visit by a US Secretary of Defense was in 1982 - two years before the David Lange Labour government enraged the US with its nuclear free policy.
While New Zealand is still excluded from the Anzus Treaty, two new agreements have some labelling the two nations as 'de facto allies'.
Dr Robert Ayson from the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University told TV ONE's Breakfast the Washington Declaration, signed by Coleman and Panetta in Washington a few months ago, talks about deepening the military links between the United States and New Zealand.
Ayson said there are possibilities for these links to go further but he does not think New Zealand ministers want to move into a "full ANZUS-type situation".
"I think that's unlikely. I also think it's unlikely that there'll be a big announcement that suddenly American ships will becoming to New Zealand," Ayson said.
The Defense Secretary's visit is significant, he said.
"It's a sign of how far the defence relationship between New Zealand and the United States has come. It's been warming up for some time, including under the Clark government, but it's really accelerated in the last couple of years, particularly as the US has emphasised its shift to focus on Asia."
Ayson said the fact that Panetta has added New Zealand to his visit to China and Japan, in an election year, is a sign of the warmth of the relationship.
For quite some years we had a suspended and "almost frozen" relationship with the US, Ayson said.
"New Zealand is not one of America's very closest partners in the region but it certainly has improved in the last few years."
About 10 police cars and eight motorcycles escorted Panetta from Auckland Airport into the CBD this morning.
After attending a welcome ceremony at Government House in Auckland, Panetta is scheduled to hold bilateral talks with Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully this afternoon.
The current situation in Afghanistan is also expected to dominate the talks.
The Defense Secretary is scheduled to hold a press conference alongside Coleman in the Government House Pavilion at 1.45pm.