Navy may resume port calls to New Zealand this year
The Navy appears close to resolving a three-decades-old dispute with New Zealand over a ban on port calls by ships carrying nuclear weapons.
The Royal New Zealand Navy has invited the U.S. to send a ship to its anniversary celebrations in November, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a statement Monday.
Mabus, on his third visit to the Antipodes to meet with military and civilian officials, said the U.S. is considering the offer but gave no timetable for a decision.
“Our bilateral military cooperation with New Zealand is strong, and we continue to partner in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and peacekeeping support operations,” he said.
The Navy hasn’t visited New Zealand since a left-wing government refused a port-call request by the guided-missile destroyer USS Buchanan in 1985 on grounds that the U.S. would neither confirm nor deny whether its vessels carried nuclear weapons.
In response, the U.S. suspended training with the Kiwis, effectively limiting ANZUS — the Australia, New Zealand, U.S. Security Treaty — to a bilateral defense pact with Australia.
The rift between the allies has been long-lasting — New Zealand was left out of a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Australia in 2004 — but in recent years there have been signs of rapprochement.
New Zealand law requires the prime minister to be satisfied visiting ships aren’t carrying nuclear arms.
The Navy removed nuclear weapons from its surface ships after the Cold War, but continues a policy of neither confirming nor denying its vessels’ nuclear capabilities.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, a neighbor and golf-partner of U.S. President Barrack Obama in Hawaii, told the New Zealand Herald newspaper last week he could be satisfied, depending on the type of vessel the U.S. opted to send if it accepted the invitation.
New Zealand is part of the “Five Eyes” signals intelligence-sharing group with the U.S., Britain, Australia and Canada, and hosts U.S. Air Force planes en route to Antarctica. The New Zealand Defence Force has sent troops to Afghanistan, and Kiwi soldiers are in Iraq training locals to take on the Islamic State.
Marines restarted training in New Zealand after a ban on joint exercises was lifted by the U.S. in 2010, and Kiwi ships have docked in Hawaii during the past two Rim of the Pacific exercises.
“Our relationship with New Zealand, across the board, continues to grow, and we discuss and cooperate on a wide range of issues at the highest levels,” Mabus said.