AUCKLAND — The United States has lifted a ban that had prevented New Zealand naval ships from visiting US ports or bases since the 1980s, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Friday, hailing a "new era" in ties.
The move highlighted improving defence relations between the two countries since a chill during the Cold War, when New Zealand in 1986 imposed a ban on any visits by US nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships to its ports.
The policy change will allow the US defence chief to approve ship visits to American military or Coast Guard facilities in the United States and abroad, Panetta told a news conference in Auckland.
"I suspect that soon we'll be able to see one of those ships in our ports," he added, when asked when New Zealand vessels would stop in the United States.
Appearing alongside his New Zealand counterpart Jonathan Coleman, the Pentagon chief also announced that restrictions on both military exercises and meetings between defence officials had been scrapped.
The rules imposed by both countries have hampered previous efforts to expand military cooperation, but Panetta said the changes marked a new chapter in relations.
"While we acknowledge that our countries continue to have differences of opinion in some limited areas, today we have affirmed that we are embarking on a new course that will not let these differences stand in the way of greater engagement on security issues," Panetta said
The Australia, New Zealand, United States Security (ANZUS) treaty was suspended between Wellington and Washington in 1986 amid concerns in Wellington about French nuclear tests in the South Pacific and US foreign policy.
In return, the United States prohibited New Zealand's naval ships from docking at American ports and bases.
Coleman, however, ruled out any change to New Zealand's nuclear-free policy.
"We are in a new era and I don't think we should get hung up about trying to turn the clock back to pre-1986 because the reality is the relationship is very, very good," Coleman said.
"In terms of restrictions from the New Zealand side we are very clear about our policy and the US has been very understanding about that... And we've moved on from the point where that is an issue."
President Barack Obama's administration has pushed to bolster military ties across the region as part of a strategic shift towards the Asia-Pacific, driven by concerns over China's growing power.
Panetta's trip to New Zealand was the first by a Pentagon chief in 30 years and the first since the ANZUS treaty was suspended between the two countries.
Wellington laid on an elaborate welcoming ceremony, with a traditional Maori Haka war dance.
New Zealand has invited a US Coast Guard ship to its ports but the Pentagon chief declined to say if Washington would accept.
"We've taken some important first steps," he said, adding: "Let's see where it takes us."
The Pentagon chief, who meets Prime Minister John Key on Saturday, later visited the World War II Hall of Memories in Auckland, paying respects to war dead, and then presented medals to five New Zealand troops who served in Afghanistan.
His trip follows US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signing an agreement in 2010 formalising a thaw in relations with Wellington, which called for deeper cooperation in combating climate change, the spread of nuclear weapons and extremism.
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