Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: US defence boss likely to demand too much

Leon Panetta. Photo / AP
Leon Panetta. Photo / AP

Turn off the lights. Hide behind the curtains. Pretend we're visiting sick rellies in Sydney. The warlord of the world, Leon Panetta, slips into Auckland sometime this week - the first US Secretary of Defence to visit in 30 years - and he wants something.

Of course there's always the remote chance he's seeking a bolt hole of peace and tranquillity to escape to, like those of his fellow countrymen who fled here during the height of the Cold War nuclear bomb madness.

With the Muslims from Cairo to Sydney rioting against the Great Satan, and China and Japan at each other's throats over a handful of rocky outcrops in the South China Sea, could you blame him?

Even less likely, Panetta might be dropping in to apologise for the humiliating treatment he and his naval chiefs dished out to the New Zealand navy ships Te Kaha and Endeavour last month when, after decades on the naughty stool, we were invited to rejoin "allies" during the Rimpac international defence exercises off Hawaii.

Still nursing a grudge for the 1985 legislation banning nuclear powered or armed ships from any nation from our ports, our US hosts treated the Kiwi sailors like lepers, banning them from a Pearl Harbour berth alongside the vessels of the 21 other participants - including the Japanese who in 1941, had, without declaring war, bombed the port to smithereens.

But no, admitting they were rude and graceless, is not the act of a super power.

No, what Panetta is here to do is to try and sign New Zealand up to his team trying to encircle and contain the rampant dragon that is China. It's hardly a new story. Half a century ago it was the yellow peril and filthy commies swooping down through Asia and into the Pacific. Now these devilishly tricky foes have transmogrified into expansionist capitalist roaders, pockets overflowing with American dollars, spreading out into the world seeking markets and influence the US regards its own.

Last Saturday, in a press briefing en route to Tokyo, Panetta told his media entourage his trip to Japan, China and New Zealand was "an opportunity to further advance our strategy of rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific ... What we want to do is obviously deepen our engagement in this part of the world, across the entire US Government". He said it was a combined military, diplomatic and economic push.

It was not just about asserting US presence in the area, "but also maintaining and strengthening a system of rules and norms and institutions in Asia that have brought decades of security and prosperity to the region ...".

He said "I will be visiting three countries that have an important role to play in our rebalance strategy."

Talk about flattery. New Zealand mentioned in the same breath as Japan and China and "important".

The long-time pariah is now "a very valued partner to the United States and we deeply appreciate the role they've played in Afghanistan ...". He said the purpose of his trip to New Zealand "is to see what opportunities exist to try to deepen our defence co-operation".

When you look at the devastation that is Iraq and Afghanistan and the upheavals throughout the Muslim world and read of US unmanned Predator and Reaper drone aircraft bombing village wedding parties by remote control, is this a "friend" or "valued partner" we really want to get any closer to?

We joined them in the Vietnam calamity, and the Afghanistan debacle. Now they want us to join them in putting some sort of corset around China.

At least with both Vietnam and Afghanistan, we had no previous relationship to ruin. But in asking us to join him in some sort of containment of China, Panetta is asking us to take his side against our second biggest trading partner.

The 2008 New Zealand China Free Trade Agreement, the first such agreement with a western country, along with this year's celebrations of 40 years of diplomatic relations, underlines the importance New Zealand places on our relationship with China.

In the year to June 2011, exports to China grew 37 per cent on the previous year, totalling $5.6 billion and amounting to 12 per cent of total exports. Only Australia took more, The United States came third, receiving 8.5 per cent.

Imports followed the same pattern, Australia providing $7.4 billion worth, China, $7.1 billion and US, $5.1 billion.

It's nice of Panetta to drop in. But the price he asks is too high.

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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