Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta paid the first visit by a U.S. defense secretary to New Zealand in 30 years. Panetta’s trip is just the latest in a string of bilateral moves between Wellington and Washington over the past few years to ease old restrictions and find new ways to work together in the Asia-Pacific region, all in an effort to translate their elevated “strategic partnership” into enhanced cooperation.
Formal defense ties between New Zealand and the United States began in 1951, when along with Australia they formed the ANZUS military alliance. But the relationship fractured in 1987, when New Zealand passed a law banning nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships from New Zealand ports, after which Washington suspended its alliance commitments to Wellington.
Though both countries have gradually tried to repair the relationship since then, the process has been greatly accelerated over the past few years. With the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, the Obama administration has sought to shore up relationships with traditional allies like Australia and the Philippines as well as strategic partners like New Zealand. A reinvigorated U.S.-New Zealand relationship also makes sense for Wellington, which needs partners to address challenges ranging from stability in the South Pacific to a host of nontraditional threats, such as illegal immigration, smuggling, natural disasters and cyberattacks.