Defence relations between New Zealand and the United States have come a long way in a relatively short time. Now, another small chapter has been written, with an agreement to expand defence co-operation. Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman and the US Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel, announced in Washington that the two countries would come together for peacekeeping initiatives, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as joint training exercises.
In terms of the latter, it was confirmed that New Zealand Navy ships will be allowed to dock at Pearl Harbour during next year's Rimpac exercise with America's Pacific allies. Last year, it came as a surprise when the frigate Te Kaha and the fuelling ship Endeavour had to use Honolulu's port. This ban on using US naval bases, in place since 1984, was a reprisal for New Zealand's nuclear-free policy. It passed largely unnoticed until last year's visit which, itself, reflected a substantial thawing in relations between the US and this country. Only a week previously, the Washington Declaration had committed both nations to more co-operation in the Pacific, more military exercises and high-level dialogue.
The exclusion from Pearl Harbour and other bases was largely symbolic. Yet in one way it served New Zealand's purpose. Rimpac, the world's biggest multinational naval exercise, is indicative of President Barack Obama's realignment of forces to the Pacific to counter China's increasing presence. This has been viewed with some alarm in Beijing. The Pearl Harbour snub at least allowed this country to put some distance between itself and the US strategy.
That situation has been set to change since September last year, when Mr Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, announced during a visit to Wellington that New Zealand Navy ships would be allowed into American military bases, and restrictions on defence talks and exercises would be removed. What has not changed is the need for this country to be cautious, given its strong economic ties with China. New Zealand wants to build its relationship with Washington, a natural ally, but it must do this while at the same time retaining good relations with Beijing.
This may have had a bearing on the respective tones of the two countries' statements yesterday. New Zealand emphasised peacekeeping. "We have agreed to expand our co-operation on peacekeeping training initiatives," said Mr Coleman. "We will be looking for opportunities to support our Asia-Pacific partners to build the capacity of their peacekeeping forces." One aspect of this will involve New Zealand providing military instructors to the US-instigated Global Peacekeeping Operations Initiative. This aims to build international capacity to conduct United Nations and regional peace operations. This, in turn, takes some pressure off American military forces. The US Defence Department, in contrast, was keen to stress the military context. "We look forward to continuing to deepen our defence co-operation in the future," said Mr Hagel. "Near-term steps include military-to-military talks next month in Honolulu, New Zealand's deployment of a frigate to the multinational anti-piracy coalition in the Gulf of Aden and the US's upcoming participation in what will be New Zealand's largest ever multinational and inter-agency exercise."
With China's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region, the US has come to recognise there is no point in keeping New Zealand at arm's length. Therefore, it has been ready to work its way around our anti-nuclear policy. New Zealand, for its part, must keep its eyes on the long term and do nothing that alienates China. Its increasingly close relations with Washington must continue to be framed carefully. Taking sides is not an option.