A security expert says a visit to New Zealand by United States Defence Secretary Leon Panetta next week is a significant sign of the warming in the relationship between the two countries and the intent of taking a defence agreement further.

Panetta will visit toward the end of next week - the first visit by a Defence Secretary to New Zealand in 30 years. The last was when the Anzus Treaty was still intact, by Caspar Weinberger in 1982 before the anti-nuclear law was passed in 1987.

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman invited Mr Panetta to visit when Dr Coleman was in the United States to sign the Washington Declaration for greater defence co-operation.

"His visit is a reflection of the excellent state of the relationship between our two countries."


Centre for Strategic Studies director Robert Ayson said the visit was significant - especially when the presidential election campaign was in progress in the United States, which tended to restrict travel by high-level politicians.

It showed both the change in the relationship between the two countries and the greater emphasis the Barack Obama Administration had placed on the Asia Pacific.

"To make a stop in New Zealand is no small effort, so for people who have looked for signs of an improvement in the relationship, this is clearly one of them."

Dr Ayson expected discussions to include the next steps under the Washington Declaration.

"It's very clear that document is designed to encourage further development in the US-NZ relationship and that relationship has come quite a long way in quite a short time."

Just before the Washington Declaration was signed, US Marines visited New Zealand and a week afterwards New Zealand took part in the biennial Rimpac exercise at Pearl Harbour for the first time in 28 years.

However, its naval vessels were not allowed to dock at the military port, and instead had to berth at Honolulu.

Mr Panetta will go to Japan and China on his way to New Zealand, and Dr Ayson expected regional security to be discussed, including a dispute between China and Japan over an island chain in the East China Sea.


Mr Panetta will meet Dr Coleman and Foreign Minister Murray McCully and lay a wreath at the Hall of Memories in Auckland to commemorate those who died in World War II, as well as Korea, Malaya-Borneo, Vietnam and, most recently, Afghanistan.

Mr Panetta's is the latest in a string of visits by high-powered politicians in the Obama Administration in recent years, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Secretary for Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, in May this year.

Mrs Clinton and Prime Minister John Key signed the Wellington Declaration during Mrs Clinton's visit.