New Zealand will host the United States Secretary of Defense for the first time in 30 years tomorrow, amidst speculation that NZ's defence ties could be about to take another step toward full restoration.
While the Government will not be changing its long-standing ban on nuclear powered ship visits, ONE News understands the United States has been exploring whether to drop its ban on allowing New Zealand navy ships to birth at US military ports.
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.
Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman says this week's visit by Leon Panetta showed "the great progress we have made in the defence relationship over the last couple of years".
While New Zealand is still excluded from the Anzus Treaty, two new agreements have some labelling New Zealand as 'de facto allies'.
"It is increasingly close, it's a trend that began under the Clark government, particularly in our commitment with Afghanistan, but under the Key government it has accelerated," Robert Ayson from the Centre of Strategic Studies said.
However, the nuclear ban still causes issues and when New Zealand navy ships were invited to a US-led military exercise in Hawaii this year, they were denied use of US military docks at Pearl Harbour.
ONE News understands Panetta's visit could see a policy change to allow New Zealand ships back into American naval ports, but US media reports that New Zealand anti-nuclear stance may be changed are believed to be wide of the mark.
Coleman said "none of our officials are talking about it, and I understand none of the US ones are either".
On his way to New Zealand, Panetta stopped in China, where he stressed there was nothing to fear from America's new-found interest in the region.
"It is in both the interests of the United States and China to advance a strong Asia-Pacific region," Panetta said.
However, analysts said competition between the super powers is building and New Zealand must position itself carefully.
Ayson said: "Many analysts expect that relationship to become more competitive in the years ahead and we are already seeing more signs of that even in the South Pacific."
Meanwhile, the issue of Afghanistan is also expected to dominate talks between Panetta and Coleman.