28 Jul 2008

US relationship with NZ in good shape - Rice

7:55 am on 28 July 2008

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says America's relationship with New Zealand is in good shape, and both sides have moved on from the nuclear issue.

Dr Rice was in Auckland on Saturday for top-level talks, including meetings with Prime Minister Helen Clark and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters.

It is the first time since 1999 that such a senior representative of the United States government has made an official visit to New Zealand.

Dr Rice described New Zealand as a friend and an ally following her meeting with Miss Clark at Government House.

The reference to New Zealand as an ally was one of the strongest public statements of support for Wellington since relations between the two countries were ruptured in the mid-1980s by New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy.

The policy prevented US naval vessels from docking in New Zealand because the US refused to either confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons on board.

Military exercises between the nations still require a Presidential waiver, due to New Zealand's nuclear-free status. But asked whether the time had come for that to change, Dr Rice replied that the relationship between the US and New Zealand has been structured to meet post-September 11 challenges.

Dr Rice says the relationship has "moved very far forward" and if there were still impediments, they could be looked at to see what more needs to be done.

She said the US and New Zealand co-operate on a vast range of issues, from Afghanistan and North Korea to protection of fisheries.

"This is a very broad and deepening relationship and it's going to continue to be so, and it is by no means a relationship that is somehow harnessed to or constrained by the past. "

Miss Clark, a critic of the US invasion of Iraq, says the two nations are looking to what they had in common.

"Both sides acknowledge it (the relationship) is in a very good state today. We have both worked hard on that," she said.

Miss Clark says she believes there is no prospect of New Zealand and the United States entering into a formal treaty again.

She says that in the post-September 11 world, the US will work with countries like New Zealand and Sweden on issues such as terrorism.

But Miss Clark says that does not mean New Zealand is an ally in the same sense as Australia or NATO member countries, and the Labour-led Government is not seeking to re-enter a formal military alliance with the United States.

Trade discussed

Dr Rice said the US is always looking for what more can be achieved on free trade and had a "very good" discussion with Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters on Saturday.

She said she would take back to Washington New Zealand's considerable interest in a free trade agreement. "The United States should be committed to free trade agreements. This president has signed a record number of them."

Mr Peters said he believed New Zealand and the US would eventually sign a free trade agreement - and sooner than people think.

The US has never agreed to hold negotiations with New Zealand on a free trade deal, but Mr Peters said if the two countries are positive about the relationship, one is achievable.

"There is no more worthy country for a free trade agreement than the country that has the freest trade in the world and right now we have half a free trade agreement with the United States in that they have every access to New Zealand, but we have not got reciprocal access," he says.

Protest held

Security was tight for the meeting between Dr Rice and Miss Clark, with roads closed off and a visible police presence.

About 70 protesters near Government House burned a US flag and approached police lines asking for the officer in charge to arrest Dr Rice, saying that she is a war criminal.

Fiji

The US Secretary of State left New Zealand on Sunday for a meeting of Pacific Foreign Ministers in Samoa, intent on reinforcing calls for a return to democracy in Fiji.

Dr Rice says the US appreciates New Zealand and Australia's leadership on Fiji, and has added its voice to call for free and fair elections in the Pacific country.

"There is especially hard work to do concerning Fiji where the return to democracy is an absolute necessity, where free peoples everywhere are speaking out for the importance of elections in Fiji, and that those elections should not be based on any other conditions but the ability to hold an election."

Dr Rice was in Samoa for a three-hour stopover, joining more than a dozen ministers from the Pacific Islands Forum to discuss issues including Fiji, maritime security and climate change.

A Pacific diplomat who attended the talks, but asked not to be named, says Dr Rice raised the issue of elections with Fiji's interim foreign minister Brigadier General Ratu Epeli Nailatikau.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters also attended the meeting in Samoa.