Jack Georgieff is a research associate with the International Security program at the Lowy Institute.
This week US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and New Zealand Minister of Defence Jonathan Coleman officially marked the resumption of full military ties between the two countries for the first time in nearly three decades. 2014 will see a New Zealand naval vessel take part in RIMPAC near Hawaii – the world's biggest multi-national naval exercise – and dock in Pearl Harbour.
As Rob Ayson explains, this news comes nearly a year late. Leon Panetta’s visit to New Zealand last year was the real turning point, when he announced a revised policy allowing individual visits by New Zealand naval vessels to US Defense Department and Coast Guard facilities. Military-to-military ties are now operating at an alliance level in all but name.
The one stumbling block to returning to alliance status remains New Zealand’s requirement for the declaration of nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed vessels.
Opposition defence spokesman Phil Goff has noted that the Chinese ships visiting New Zealand declare themselves nuclear free and questions why the US could not do the same. Washington will fall back on its policy of neither-confirm-nor-deny. It is not likely to change in the immediate future.
The joint statement also 'noted the importance of continued dialogue on the shared challenge of cyber-security.' Given that cyber security and intelligence cooperation go hand in hand, this shows that Washington and Wellington will continue to cooperate in the intelligence sphere. Coleman dismissed concerns that the NSA had been listening in on the Key Government. It must be one of very few governments in the world currently willing to make such a public declaration of trust.
A note of caution, however. New Zealand’s expected 2014 elections could see a Labour-Greens government come to power. The bases of both parties carry some anti-American sentiment. The NSA revelations this week caused Green Party co-leader Dr Russell Norman – a likely cabinet minister in any future left wing government – to call for New Zealand’s withdrawal from the Five Eyes intelligence network. Washington will need to show some diplomatic nous to keep the new momentum and closeness of the relationship going, as part of its wider rebalance, if power changes hands in Wellington next year.
Photo courtesy of the US Defense Department.