The US Quadrennial Defence Review has announced that President Barack Obama is ready to increase strategic co-operation with countries in the Asia-Pacific including Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam.
In June 2012, New Zealand and US signed the ‘Washington Declaration’ to expand defence cooperation. The Declaration, signed by New Zealand Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman and the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, envisages regular strategic dialogue and information sharing, and emphasises on “building maritime security presence and capabilities.”
New Zealand’s participation in the world’s largest naval exercise, namely the RIM Pacific in Hawaii has boosted the defence relationship between the two countries.
Defence cooperation has a prickly thorn between the two countries for 28 years, after New Zealand banned nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships visiting its ports.
The US has always refused to declare if its ships are nuclear-armed.
Despite RIM Pacific 2012 and the ‘Washington Declaration,’ the New Zealand’s reluctance in allowing US warships near its ports is still a bone of contention.
However, New Zealand is trying to shed its past reservations in promoting closer defence relations with the National Party now in power.
The John Key Government has focused its foreign policy on pragmatism rather than on ideology. New Zealand has understood the importance of the rise of Asia-Pacific and has increased defence cooperation with these countries, especially India, which is a closer strategic partner of the US.
During his visit to India last year, Mr Key and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh signed an Agreement that provided for a New Zealand Defence Advisor in India (Indian Newslink, July 15, 2011).
Closer relations between Wellington and Washington began with the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November 2010, culminating in the ‘Washington Declaration.’
This was a paradigm shift in the US-New Zealand relationship with support from Labour, the main opposition party.
Following Wellington Declaration, New Zealand released its ‘White Paper,’ which buttressed closer strategic relationship with Washington, especially in South Pacific.
From New Zealand’s point of view, its security is not threatened in anyway.
But the situation has changed in the South Pacific, with countries such as Fiji seeking better ties with China, which would be in New Zealand’s interests.
New Zealand does not have autonomy on this issue because it does not have a large defence force or resources to protect its sovereignty.
But its objectives have been to have an open sea route to help sustain its export-oriented sea route.
New Zealand has, since World War I, committed its troops as a part of the Allied Nations. Despite the lapse of the ANZUS Treaty, the country has sided with the US in committing its troops for international peace and security as a part of International Security Assistance Force (as done in Afghanistan).
From the US point of view, New Zealand’s cultural and political affinity with energy-rich South Pacific and its commitment to encourage democratically elected governments could be useful.
Balaji Chandramohan is our Correspondent based in New Delhi.