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Panetta Lifts Ban on New Zealand Ship Visits to U.S. Ports

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted a ban on New Zealand naval ship visits to the U.S. imposed in response to a 1987 law prohibiting port stops by nuclear-armed and powered vessels.

The change will promote better military ties between the two countries, Panetta said today alongside New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman during a visit to Auckland.

U.S. policy has been modified “to allow the U.S. secretary of defense to authorize individual visits to Department of Defense or Coast Guard facilities,” Panetta said. The U.S. also removed “bureaucratic obstacles to talks between defense officials and restrictions on exercises.”

Panetta arrived here from China as part of an Asia trip as the U.S. makes plans to execute a so-called military rebalancing strategy that places greater emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region, where China has been exercising greater influence than in the past because of its growing economic and military power.

Defense ties between the New Zealand and the U.S. have been moribund since the Pacific nation passed a law in 1987 that banned nuclear-armed and powered ships from entering its ports. The law damaged military and political ties and ended New Zealand’s involvement in a defense treaty with the U.S. that included Australia.

New Zealand’s policy of prohibiting nuclear ship visits won’t change, Coleman told reporters, adding that the U.S. is “very accepting” of the restrictions.

Relationship Thaws

“We are not getting hung up about turning the clock back to 1986,” Coleman said. Ties between the two sides are “very, very good and we are enjoying the benefits of that relationship.”

The relationship has thawed since 2000, assisted by New Zealand sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. defense officials traveling with Panetta said. Ten New Zealand troops have died in Afghanistan, including the country’s first female combat death.

New Zealand already participates in the Rimpac naval exercise off the coast of Hawaii -- the world’s largest international maritime exercise. It’s also part of an informal group of five nations including the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia that share intelligence information.

“I want to do everything possible to fully cooperate in this friendship,” Panetta told reporters. “We are embarked on establishing a new era in relations between the U.S. and New Zealand.”

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