In a key shift, the United States is lifting a ban on New Zealand navy vessels visiting US ports, and will remove obstacles to defence talks and exercises.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the shifts in policy after talks with Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman in Auckland today.

Mr Panetta said the restrictions would be lifted in the interests of closer defence cooperation in the Asia Pacific.

Neither side will change their stance on US ship visits to New Zealand, but Mr Panetta said the restrictions had been in place since the suspension of Anzus. He believed removing them could be made without affecting core tenets of US policy.


Currently waivers are required before New Zealand can take part in exercises or talks with the US.

Mr Panetta said the changes signified a "new era'' in the relationship.

Dr Coleman said the nuclear free policy would remain unchanged but that did not mean the two countries could not have a strong defence relationship.

The shift sends the clearest indication yet that the two are determined to work around the stand off over the nuclear free policy.

Mr Panetta said he expected to see a New Zealand Navy vessel in a US port soon but it was up to New Zealand when that happened.

"While we acknowledge our countries continue to have differences of opinion in limited areas, today we have acknowledged we are embarking on a new course in our relationship that will not let those differences stand in the way of greater engagement on security issues."