John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Petty ban a black mark for America

U.S. Navy Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of the Pacific Fleet, speaks during a news conference at Pearl Harbour today. New Zealand has been refused permission to berth at Pearl Harbour. Photo / AP
U.S. Navy Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of the Pacific Fleet, speaks during a news conference at Pearl Harbour today. New Zealand has been refused permission to berth at Pearl Harbour. Photo / AP

Petty, petulant and pathetic. What other conclusion is it possible to draw from the absurd, vindictive and ultimately short-sighted refusal by the United States military to allow two New Zealand naval vessels to berth at the Pearl Harbour military base?

Having invited New Zealand to participate in the Rimpac exercises off Hawaii for the first time in nearly three decades, the Pentagon then slaps this country in the face by making the frigate Te Kaha and the refuelling ship Endeavour tie up at civilian port facilities in Honolulu.

The ban on Pearl Harbour is designed to punish and humiliate. It is a more than curt reminder to New Zealand that its anti-nuclear policy still comes with a price. What better way to make your point than segregating New Zealand from the 21 other countries taking part in the exercises?

John Key should have ignored the diplomatic niceties and gone with gut feeling.

He should have pointed out that resolving the anti-nuclear impasse has not come without cost for New Zealand. A terse brief statement including the words "New Zealand", "Afghanistan" and "sacrifice" would have not have gone amiss. It was an opportunity missed.

He could have added that treating New Zealand sailors like second-class citizens runs 180 degrees counter to the direction of the intensive diplomacy of recent years which produced the thaw in Wellington-Washington relations.

This tawdry episode smells very much like the revenge of the United States Navy, the branch of the American military machine most affected by New Zealand's ban on nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered warships and consequently the one most averse to resolving the subsequent two decades-plus stand-off.

The berthing ban is even more ridiculous given other Rimpac participants include Japan which almost destroyed the American Pacific fleet based at Pearl Harbour some 70 years ago. The list also includes Russia which, in the guise of the Soviet Union, would have targeted its inter-continental ballistic missiles at American bases like Pearl Harbour - and probably still does.

The Americans would not dream of treating those countries' navies like they are treating New Zealand's. That is a function of size. But it is also made a lot easier by the Prime Minister and Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman being so quick to dismiss any suggestion of a snub.

It is understandable that neither wants to turn a molehill into a mountain. Both consequently tried to play down the Pearl Harbour ban as "nothing new".

On one level, they are correct. New Zealand bans some American vessels. So the Americans ban New Zealand's from its military facilities. In diplomatic lingo, this is known as "reciprocity".

Given both countries, however, long ago agreed New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy was an obstruction that should be driven around rather than remain a road-block, such "reciprocity" has long been up for renegotiation.

The Pearl Harbour shut-out is even more of a nonsense coming just weeks after Coleman signed the Washington Declaration, a new closer defence agreement with the United States.

There is only one winner from all this - New Zealand's not-so-shallow well of anti-American sentiment. The Americans could not have come up with a better means of replenishing it.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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