23 Sep 2012

US lifts ban on NZ Navy visiting its ports

6:33 am on 23 September 2012

The United States has lifted a ban on New Zealand Defence Force vessels visiting American ports, further thawing relations after a 26-year stand-off on nuclear issues.

American Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta made the announcement on Friday afternoon following talks with New Zealand Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman in Auckland.

Mr Panetta says while the two countries continue to have differences in limited areas, today is about affirming a new course has been set in the relationship.

He says restrictions on talks between defence officials and on military exercises are being removed, and New Zealand Navy ships will once again be able to visit US defence or coast guard facilities in the US and around the world.

The Defence Secretary says differences in policy - a reference to New Zealand's anti-nuclear stance - will not stand in the way of greater engagement on security issues.

Mr Panetta described New Zealand as a true friend of the United States.

Dr Coleman told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint lifting the ban showed relations between the two countries were returning to pre-1986 levels.

He expects the ban to be lifted immediately.

However, Dr Coleman says New Zealand has no plans to change its anti-nuclear policy.

"Look the US is comfortable with that and they understand that, but absolutely no talk of any change in our anti nuclear stance."

Talks at Government House

Mr Panetta was welcomed at Government House in Auckland with a powhiri before talks with Dr Coleman and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully.

Later he laid a wreath at the Auckland War Memorial Museum and presented medals to New Zealand Defence Force personnel who have served in Afghanistan.

He also expressed his condolences for the recent deaths of New Zealand defence personnel in Afghanistan.

The Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Richard Rhys Jones says the relationship with the United States is in a good place.

He says there will be a few exercises each year with the US to build New Zealand's amphibious capability so defence staff are skilled at working between ships, helicopters and vehicles.

Mr Panetta's visit is the first by the top person in the Pentagon in 30 years.

The invitation to visit New Zealand came after the signing of the Washington Declaration, which aims to strengthen political and defence co-operation, in June this year.