The chance of Barack Obama visiting New Zealand during his presidency appears to have faded with the confirmation that Vice President Joe Biden will come to these shores next week.

Prime Minister John Key said the 24-hour stopover by Biden next Wednesday does not rule out a subsequent tour by the US President, but he conceded that this might now have to take place after Obama vacates his office in November.

"I don't think this is a tradeoff," Key said today. "I think it just happened to be that firstly, the vice president wanted to come, and he's in the region ... so it obviously made sense."

Obama has previously expressed a wish to come to New Zealand with his family, but only has six months remaining in his presidency.


Biden will make his flying visit to Auckland after engagements in Australia. It is the first stop-off by a US vice-president in 40 years, and the first by a high-ranking US politician since former president Bill Clinton attended Apec in 1999.

Key said it was possible that Biden would confirm US plans to send a ship to the Royal New Zealand Navy's 75th anniversary later this year.

A response to New Zealand's formal invitation will need to be made soon, Mr Key said, because the event was not far off. No US ships have come to New Zealand's shores since anti-nuclear legislation was passed in 1987.

US Ambassador to New Zealand Mark Gilbert said this was not the central purpose of Biden's visit, and he was likely to discuss a broad range of issues including developments in the South China Sea. An international tribunal in the Hague yesterday that China had no legal basis for claiming historic rights in the disputed region.

New Zealand has not taken a position on the issue, though Foreign Minister Murray McCully has criticised the increase in military presence in the South China Sea - an apparent reference to Chinese activities in the area.

Mr Gilbert said he also expected Key and Biden to discuss the Trans Pacific Partnership and measures to counter extremist group the Islamic State (Isis).

Biden's official visit was a further sign of the deepening relationship between the two countries, he said.

"It underscores the significance of the growth of the relationship and where the relationship stands today - that he wanted to take time to come here and spend time with the Prime Minister and show the people of New Zealand how strong the relationship is between the two countries."

US heads of state rare visitors to our shores

American political leaders love to travel, but not to New Zealand. In office, only Presidents Lyndon B Johnson and Bill Clinton have visited New Zealand.

Johnson spent two days on a state visit in 1966 to shore up support for the Vietnam War. Given the divisiveness of the issue, his whirlwind trip attracted hundreds of anti-war protestors. But their fury at his presence was outnumbered by thousands keen to catch a glimpse of Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird.

In Wellington, when Johnson arrived at Parliament for a state luncheon on October 20, there was cheering as supporters of the US war ripped up protest banners. As many as 200,000 lined the streets eager to see the Americans.

The Otago Daily Times reported that Johnson "may have done much to change the pattern of future royal visits to New Zealand by the democratic approach he brought to his two-day stay in Wellington".

Four years later, as the war ground on with no end in sight, US Vice-President Spiro Agnew's visit triggered angry demonstrations. More than 500 protesters were on hand when Agnew arrived at Auckland's Intercontinental Hotel - now the Pullman - and police made 15 arrests.

That night, as Agnew addressed 300 guests, scuffles broke out between police and protestors.

A headline in the Herald the next morning stated "Police Wade into Crowd". The weekly New Zealand Truth called the agitators "hairy ruffians" and "trouble makers".

Agnew was more circumspect, saying the protestors represented "only a small number of people" and had "nothing constructive to offer".

In 1999, President Bill Clinton made a four-day state visit, which included the Apec meeting. He shopped, went sailing, played golf, met Sir Ed Hillary and brought his daughter Chelsea along. He was, like Johnson, a popular visitor, and hundreds tried to catch a view of Clinton during his trip.