The Prime Minister says the barring of the New Zealand Navy from docking in Pearl Harbour during a massive international defence exercise is not a snub.

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman found out only last Friday through a newspaper article about the naval port ban during Rimpac- a throwback to the anti-nuclear rift.

That was a week after he was at the Pentagon to sign a new closer defence agreement with US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, known as the Washington Declaration.

During Rimpac the New Zealand Navy will instead be relegated to a civilian dock in Honolulu.


The US ban on exercising with New Zealand was lifted in 2010, allowing it back in the Rimpac club, but clearly not as fully paid up member. The other 40 ships taking part in the Rimpac exercise are able to berth in Pearl Harbour, including the first Russian destroyer to take part in the exercise.

It is the first time in 28 years New Zealand has been invited to take part in the biennial exercise which this time is the biggest yet, involving 22 nations, 42 ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel. New Zealand is contributing 350 personnel and has sent the the Anzac-class frigate HMNZS Te Kaha as well as the HMNZS Endeavour fuelling ship, an autonomous underwater vehicle, an operational diving team, a mine counter-measures team, a rifle platoon from 1 Infantry Regiment, an air force P-3K Orion and staff from Defence HQ.

Dr Coleman said he was not sure whether Defence Force knew about the ban and he would speak to them about it. He said he found out about it when someone drew his attention to an article in the local Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper. But he played down its significance.

"I don't think it's any big deal. The fact is we are in Rimpac for the first time in 28 years. We signed that Washington Declaration last week which was a high-level document so I wouldn't expect to be briefed on all the operational details on Rimpac."

The newspaper article about New Zealand being kept out of Pearl Harbour was reproduced in the Defence Force publication Stars and Stripes. It quotes Pentagon spokeswoman Major Cathy Wilkinson as saying the Wellington Declaration of 2010 established a new framework for an expanded relationship and nearly normalised the relationship.

"We continue to partner within existing limitations, which include not allowing New Zealand Navy ships to visit US military ports."

Prime Minister John Key said the arrangement did not come as a surprise and was not a snub.

"It's nothing new - it's been the position since the legislation was passed in 1987, so we've been in that position ever since then," he told TV3's Firstline programme.


Mr Key said it had no impact on the Navy's participation in the exercise.

Diplomatic relations between the US and New Zealand have thawed substantially in the past five years. The thaw has been driven by the State Department, with more resistance over the years from the Pentagon and especially the US Navy to concessions to New Zealand.

New Zealand was suspended by the Anzus defence alliance after it passed anti-nuclear legislation in 1987 banning nuclear armed or propelled vessels from its ports. The law has not impeded ship visits to New Zealand from other nuclear countries including Britain, France and China. Questions are never asked and it is presumed that vessels they send comply with the law.

But the US continues to view the law as a challenge to its policy of neither confirming nor denying the nuclear capability of its vessels.

The US Navy refuses to visit New Zealand ports while the anti-nuclear law remains, and it has clearly reciprocated by banning New Zealand from its military ports.