GREG BOYED He's been a congressman, reviewed America's war in Iraq and run the CIA, overseeing the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. He's now US Secretary of Defense, the deputy commander-in-chief of the mighty American military. Leon Panetta flew in preaching a new era in US-NZ relations. It's the first time in 30 years a US Secretary of Defense has visited our shores, the last being Caspar Weinburger back in 1982, yet another sign of the thaw between Washington and Wellington. But it also reinforces America's decision this year to make the Pacific its number one foreign policy priority. But why is America so keen to be pals again? What do they want, and what are the biggest risks facing the world today? In his only New Zealand interview, he spoke to political editor Corin Dann.
If I could begin with New Zealand's relationship with the United States? You made some policy changes yesterday. It didn't seem as though there was any reciprocal requirement on New Zealand. Does the United States have any expectation now that it's changed the ban, in particular, on those ship visits to US ports?
LEON PANETTA - US Defense Secretary
Well, you know, I think the nature of our friendship and partnership is that it is a two-way street. The fact is that New Zealand has deployed forces to Afghanistan and carried on a very important mission that's a part of a larger mission there. The fact is we have fought and bled together over the years, both of our countries, going back to World War I. And today what we're doing is trying to make sure that we build up a new era in the relationship between the United States and New Zealand. And every relationship that is close is one that's based on trust, and that's what we have with people of New Zealand. And it's that relationship of trust that no matter what the crisis is, no matter what the challenge is that we can trust each other to be able to do the right thing, and that, I think, probably that's the most important thing I get back in this relationship.
CORIN But no push from the United States for New Zealand to change its anti-nuclear stance. Have attitudes changed in the United States to that stance? Is it not seen as such a problem any more?
LEON I think, you know, what I sense is that New Zealand and the United States as we establish this kind of new era of cooperation that we're going to continue to move forward step by step and that- I think our hope is that, you know, by allowing your ships to come into our ports, which we announced yesterday, allowing our people to be able to engage with one another, getting rid of some of the silly limitations that were in place is a real step in the right direction. And I can only see the relationship getting better from this point on.
CORIN Yes, you did mention yesterday about the one step at a time when asked about Coastguard visits, so is that something that's still a goal? Does it remain a goal that we can get to a point where we go back, for example, into ANZUS or that type of arrangement?
LEON Well, I mean, I'd like to see our relationship get stronger and better in the future, and I think both sides want to see that happen. Obviously, we want to do it in a way that, you know, both countries can support. I've got to always be attuned to the navy and making sure that I accommodate their concerns, and I think New Zealand has to, you know, make sure that the country supports what steps it takes. But I think both of us- Both of the leadership meetings that I've had with your defence minister and prime minister - I get a sense that we're both headed in the same direction, and that's a good thing.
CORIN Putting the ship issue aside, is there perhaps the potential for New Zealand one day to host US marines in that same way, perhaps, that Australia and the Philippines might be in the future?
LEON Well, you know, I think one of the things that was made clear to me by the Defence Minister is the interest in developing amphibious capability here with the New Zealand forces. And we certainly can help provide assistance in that. The marines are among the best in terms of that capability. And I would hope that, you know, we could develop an approach where we could continue to do exercises, continue to provide training and assistance, continue to provide our expertise and try to build up New Zealand's capabilities so that you will be in a better position to be able to provide not only for your own security but help us in providing for the security of the Asia-Pacific region.
CORIN And could that mean a presence of United States forces here helping build that capacity, in other words, stationed in some way here to help build that up?
LEON I think, I mean, if New Zealand feels that that's something that they would support and want, we certainly are more than ready to engage them in that kind of relationship. I think it would be very helpful. We do exercises together. As I said, we've fought and bled together, so I think whatever it is- I mean, my approach to this as Secretary of Defense is whatever we can do to try to help New Zealand develop its capabilities and build a stronger friendship, I'm prepared to do.
CORIN Just finally on the relationship - the ANZUS agreement. Is the wish or the goal of the United States at all to see that New Zealand re-enters that agreement?
LEON Well, you know, as I said, you know, let's do this step by step. And, ultimately, if New Zealand is prepared to make revisions for the future that will help strengthen our relationship, we will work together to try to achieve that goal.
CORIN You said - I think it was in Italy last year - that, 'In the Pacific we're concerned about China.' How concerned are you?
LEON You know, as a Pacific power, just like New Zealand is a Pacific nation, I think we share the same concern. We want a prosperous region; we want a secure region. This is an area that really does represent the future. I mean, you know, as I go to different nations in the Pacific, what I see is countries that are rapidly improving their economies, rapidly improving the situation within their societies, rapidly engaging in trade and commerce. And all of that is really a good sign for where this region can be headed. And I think- The one thing I stressed in my trip to China was that it's in China's interest as well. And interestingly enough, the leadership in China mentioned the fact that, you know, as we rebalance the Pacific that it's important that that effort be not just on the military side, but on the diplomatic side, on the economic side, on the developmental side as well as on the military side, because I think they do recognise as well that they have to play an important role if this area is, in fact, going to be prosperous and secure for the future.
CORIN So where does New Zealand fit in that? I mean, analysts have been suggesting that the increased interest of the US in New Zealand, perhaps, in the Pacific is because of a need to contain China. Is that a fair assessment?
LEON No. As a matter of fact, the message I delivered to China is that the purpose of the rebalance is not to contain China. It's to engage China in a broader role in terms of dealing with the Pacific. I mean, the territorial problems that we're facing right now are a good example. That can be, you know- if nations can't resolve that, that could be real trouble in this region. If on the other hand we develop a process, a format, you know, for arbitration, for mediation, for resolving these issues, that could really help all countries in the Pacific region.
CORIN Just finally on that - does that create a problem, though, because the reports today, for example, in the New Zealand media suggesting China would like to think that it would have New Zealand's support in that dispute, for example, the island dispute, whereas the US, for example, obviously has an alliance with Japan. So does that create a problem for countries like New Zealand when it's trying to have relations with both superpowers?
LEON I guess my advice to New Zealand would be to in many ways follow our example, which is basically to say we don't take positions with regards to territorial disputes. But the one thing we do urge is that countries find a way to resolve those differences peacefully and not engage in the kind of provocative acts that could result in conflict or violence.
CORIN If I could move on to Afghanistan? Is the US comfortable with the timetable for New Zealand's withdrawal from the Bamiyan province?
LEON You know, New Zealand's done a great job in Bamiyan province. You know, it's been one of the areas where we successfully have made the transition to Afghan security and governance. A lot of that is due to the great efforts of New Zealand. And by the way, I really pay tribute to the New Zealand forces and they've paid a price with those that have lost their lives, but it's a price that I think has been done in order to try to achieve the goal in Afghanistan, which is to have an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself. So, yeah, I think, you know, New Zealand has set a timetable that I think is in line with completing its mission. And that is in line with the larger plan that we have to complete our transition by the end of 2014.
CORIN You mentioned the surge yesterday - that the surge had finished. Has it been successful, because there may be New Zealanders thinking we've just lost five soldiers in August in the Bamiyan province, which was supposed to be a slightly more benign area, lots of attacks - blue-green attacks they call them - and attacks on your bases too with your jet planes. So has that surge been successful?
LEON You know, look, we're in a war, and New Zealand knows better than any other country that war is hell and you pay a price when you engage in war. But the fact is that the sacrifices that have been made have, in fact, paid off in terms of creating a better course for Afghanistan, and then we'll have an enduring presence there in which we'll continue to be there to make sure that all of the gains and all of the successes will continue to be in place for the future.
CORIN In terms of the global picture, in terms of threats - global threats - what are the areas you see as most dangerous at the moment?
LEON Well, you know, I was telling somebody, you know, even as we draw down after 10 years of war and, you know, we brought the war in Iraq to a conclusion, hopefully we'll draw down in the war in Afghanistan and, you know, we engaged in Libya, brought down Gaddafi and terrorism - the war on terrorism has had some great successes as well - but we're still a country that faces huge threats in the world. We face the threat from North Korea in this region and the potential, you know, that they could engage in provocative behaviour that could very well result in war. We face the problem from Iran and the fact that they might try to obtain a nuclear capability as well.
CORIN Are you worried, for example, that Israel would step in there? I mean, there's been a lot of sabre rattling from their administration.
LEON Well, it's a volatile region, the Middle East, now. And between Iran, what's happening in Syria, what's happening in the Middle East generally in terms of the turmoil that we've seen, it is a volatile area, and it's one we're concerned about. We're concerned about cyberwarfare, which is a whole new area of technological warfare in the future. We're concerned about, you know, how we do deal with rising powers like China, like India, like Brazil so that they can be part of the international family as opposed to being outliers. And so there's a series of threats that we continue to confront in today's world. And to add to that, we continue to fight the war on terrorism, we're fighting in Yemen, we're fighting in Somalia, in North Africa, we continue to be at war in Afghanistan. And when you put all of that together, the countries of the world have got to be vigilant about dealing with those threats. This is still a- You know, this is no longer a world in which you face just one enemy or one superpower. What we're facing is an array of threats in which we're going to have to be flexible and agile and work together in alliances to be about to confront and provide security for the world.
CORIN Mr Secretary, thank you very much for your time.
LEON Thank you very much. Nice to be with you.
CORIN Thank you.