Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s Visit to New Zealand

  • Leon Panetta Departs for trip through Asia and the pacific
    Sep 19, 2012

    Q1: Why is the visit important?

    A1: The visit is an important manifestation of a top-level U.S. commitment to deepen relations with partners across the Asia Pacific. The U.S. strategy recognizes the need to invest in relationships and develop a more personal and granular level of engagement. Additionally, on the security front, the United States is seeking to develop support and cooperation across a wide spectrum spanning the entire region. New Zealand brings unique skills and access to that spectrum of security cooperation in areas such as the Pacific Islands, amphibious technologies and techniques, intelligence, and outstanding special forces capabilities.

    The visit follows the signing of two core documents that recognize the need to enhance bilateral ties—the Wellington Declaration by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully in November 2010 and the Washington Declaration by Secretary Panetta and Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman in June 2012. Together, these declarations institutionalize a new, deep, and practical level of engagement. The Washington Declaration establishes a regular, high-level defense dialogue, the fulfillment of which is part of Panetta’s mission in New Zealand.

    Q2: What will Panetta do in New Zealand?

    A2: Panetta will meet with Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully. He will also lay a wreath at the Auckland World War II Hall of Memories.

    It will be the first visit by a U.S. secretary of defense to New Zealand in 30 years, and it comes at a time when the bilateral security relationship between New Zealand and the United States is the strongest it has been for several decades. Though the relationship was already developing, the U.S. strategic rebalance in the Asia-Pacific region has added extra impetus to moves toward closer cooperation.

    This visit will provide a strong indication that New Zealand–U.S. relations are in a good state and that political leaders are committed to continuing to strengthen bilateral ties.

    Q3: What is the visit likely to accomplish?

    A3: In this case, no big news is the news. Both the United States and New Zealand want to focus on regularizing the relationship, so no major announcements are planned. The United States is not looking to New Zealand for special basing access such as that announced in Australia last year.

    The central purpose of the secretary’s visit is to explore opportunities for deepening defense cooperation. Following the Washington Declaration, a key area of focus is likely to be maritime military issues in the West Pacific.

    Other areas of mutual concern that will be looked at may include nuclear proliferation and humanitarian relief in the Pacific.

    The issue of nuclear naval ships is not one the United States will pursue. Over the last several years, the United States has come to understand that the ban is part of New Zealand’s identity, and the U.S. plan is to align with, rather than challenge, friends in New Zealand on this issue that has divided the countries in the past. However, it has been suggested that the United States may consider changing its policy of not allowing even nonnuclear vessels into New Zealand waters. This would enable more joint naval exercises and training in the Pacific.

    The visit will signal that the United State values New Zealand’s ongoing support in Afghanistan, which is particularly important following the deaths of five New Zealand soldiers in Bamiyan province in August.

    Q4: What are the recent developments in U.S.–New Zealand military-to-military relations?

    A4: In April this year, U.S. Marine Corps and Army personnel took part in a major exercise in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island, and New Zealand soldiers have been training with U.S. marines in California. New Zealand was invited this year to participate in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises in Hawaii for the first time since the 1980s. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman publicly endorsed the U.S. rebalance to Asia. New Zealand’s Provincial Reconstruction Team continues to serve in Afghanistan, but the government has announced that it will be withdrawn by April 2013. Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has stated that New Zealand will continue to support the international community’s efforts in Afghanistan after troops have left.

    Ernest Z. Bower is codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Maria English is a researcher with the CSIS Pacific Partners Initiative.

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    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.