The United States has signalled it would be willing to station Marines in New Zealand, the US Secretary of Defense said today.
Panetta arrived early yesterday for military co-operation talks in the first visit from the Secretary of Defense to New Zealand since 1982.
Prime Minister John Key described his lunch meeting with Panetta today as "very, very positive". The Defense Secretary's visit marked a "new era" in the two countries' relations, he added.
Yesterday, Panetta announced the United States would lift its 27-year-old ban on Kiwi ships visiting US military ports - in place since the New Zealand Government banned nuclear warships from its waters in 1985.
In an exclusive interview with TV ONE's Q+A, the visiting US Defense Secretary said that the relationship between the two nations may be set to grow further still, with US Marines potentially helping New Zealand to build its amphibious fighting capability.
"If New Zealand feels that is something they would support or want, we certainly are more than ready to engage them in that kind of relationship. We think it would be very helpful," said Panetta.
However, the issue of stationing Marines was not raised in official talks.
Yet, some analysts say Panetta's suggestion is significant as US troops have been earmarked for Australia.
"It wouldn't be the same size I don't think but it does fit with our desire to boost amphibious capability," said Robert Ayson from Victoria University's Centre of Strategic Studies.
ONE News Political Editor Corin Dann also said that it seems that the US would like to see further changes, perhaps even a return to the Anzus treaty.
"If New Zealand is prepared to make revisions for the future that will help strengthen our relationship then we will work together to achieve that goal," said Panetta.
But Dann also said that a speedy return to Anzus seems unlikely, not just because of the anti-nuclear policy, but also because any move to a formal alliance with the US could upset New Zealand-China relations.
Panetta also offered New Zealand a word of warning when it comes to any future regional disputes.
"My advice to New Zealand would be in many ways is to follow our lead... and don't take positions in regards to terroritorial disputes," he said.
Speaking after his lunch meeting with Panetta, Key said Panetta was "deadly serious about this being a new era," in diplomatic relations between New Zealand and the superpower.
"But really, this is a relationship in the best of shape, and you're talking about minor steps forward to take it to the ultimate level... but it's a great relationship," said Key.
He said the new US policy allowing New Zealand navy ships to visit US military ports or Coast Guard facilities around the world made sense. The ban "had been a relic of the past", he added.
Corin Dann said yesterday's outcome was the result of a step-by-step "warming of the military relations" since New Zealand first sent troops to Afghanistan under former Prime Minister Helen Clark.
The Prime Minister also commented on the decision to send four SAS logistics officers to Afghanistan to gather intelligence for a US retribution attack on insurgents who killed five New Zealand troops.
Key stressed today that the logistics officers were not combat troops.
"I wouldn't characterise it as [a retribution attack]. What I would say is that they are trying to gather intelligence, and that when we understand that, then we can ensure our people are in the safest position."
TV ONE's Q+A programme will have an exclusive interview with Leon Panetta on Sunday at 9am.