NZ-US bond set to step up with talks

The New Zealand-United States relationship is set to step up a level - "or maybe the next two levels" - starting with tripartite talks including Australia, the first of which is to be held tomorrow.

Increased military cooperation could also be expected, United States Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said while in Wellington today on his way to the Pacific Island Forum meeting in Vanuatu.

He heads there tomorrow and for the first time in decades, a trilateral meeting between the United States, Australia and New Zealand will be held on the meeting's sidelines.

The aim, Dr Campbell said, was "to talk about some of the challenges that we together face in the Asia Pacific region.

"That dialogue is a profound recognition not of our differences, of which there are one or two, but about the areas we need closer consultation and dialogue."

The talks are a further mending of the relationship battered by the nuclear issue which tore the ANZUS military alliance in 1984. That saw intelligence sharing curtailed, a ban on New Zealand involvement in routine military exercises and loss of ally status.

Since then, there has been an easing - with New Zealand being described as an ally and a friend.

Dr Campbell said that the US administration valued New Zealand and President Barack Obama had bonded with Prime Minister John Key when he met him during trips last year.

When the president took office, several bilateral relationships were reviewed.

"One of those at the top of the list was New Zealand," Dr Campbell said.

A small number of differences had obscured what the countries shared in common," he said.

"I think one of the things that came through resoundingly in this review was that it is profoundly in American interests to take the relationship with New Zealand to the next level - or may the next two levels, even."

Areas where the countries could work together included climate change, security in the Pacific, shared perceptions on challenges and opportunities in Asia.

"I think there is recognition that we need bilateral dialogue, but probably stopping short (of) anything that would look like resumption of ANZUS. My sense is that is not on the agenda in New Zealand either.

"So we clearly believe that there needs to be a defence or a security component in this dialogue but we also have to recognise that given our history, there are some challenges that would prevent us from returning to the situation that we had."

Closer military relationships would see more joint training and exercises, he said.

"I think you will see exercises, training, dialogue, discussions, interactions on a range of issues - defence, intelligence, security - across the board.

"You are going to see a very deliberate effort on the part of the United States to work more closely with New Zealand, as a recognition of the role that New Zealand is playing in global politics."

The US wanted regular trilateral talks, which should become commonplace and not a subject of great commentary.

"We think, given our shared commitments to the Pacific, given our common heritage, given the fact that our soldiers, as we witnessed tragically today, are serving and dying together - don't we owe them the ability to sit down and talk about our mutual challenges? I think the answer is a resounding 'yes, we do.'"

The situation in Fiji, suspended from the forum over its lack of progress towards democracy after a coup in 2006, would be discussed tomorrow.

Dr Campbell said the US was "disappointed and somewhat discouraged" by the lack of progress there.

He said the US intended to engage more in the Pacific. USAID (the United States government aid agency) was returning, and the highest ranked delegation in years attending the forum underscored that.

"I think New Zealand and Australia have been determined and quite engaged in the Pacific for decades. In fact. I would say that in recent decades, it's been the United States whose commitment has occasionally lagged."

Dr Campbell's visit precedes one by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton scheduled for later this year.

- NZPA

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- NZPA

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