Ties with US must be on NZ’s terms

The Press - - In Depth: Perspective -

We have come a long way since the Anzus rift with the United States in the 1980s. No US war­ship vis­ited New Zealand for 33 years, but within the past four months, two have come. Both times we have wel­comed their sailors ashore to help us in our emer­gen­cies.

The first Amer­i­can ship to visit New Zealand since the 1980s anti-nu­clear leg­is­la­tion passed was the de­stroyer USS Samp­son in Novem­ber. It came to help cel­e­brate the Royal New Zealand Navy’s 75th an­niver­sary, but was di­verted to Kaik­oura to join the in­ter­na­tional fleet help­ing out af­ter the Novem­ber earthquake.

The Po­lar Star was in Lyt­tel­ton this week as the Port Hills fire emer­gency un­folded. The ship is an ice­breaker used to sup­port the Amer­i­can sci­en­tific mis­sion in Antarc­tica, but is op­er­ated by the Coast Guard, a branch of the US mil­i­tary. Its crew of­fered to as­sist in the Port Hills op­er­a­tion, and the ‘‘coasties’’ came ashore to help po­lice and the New Zealand De­fence Force pa­trol the evac­u­ated ar­eas yes­ter­day.

The gen­er­ous as­sis­tance from the Amer­i­cans is wel­come. It also rep­re­sents a step for­ward in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween our two coun­tries, which soured when the third Labour Gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced its anti-nu­clear leg­is­la­tion in 1987. That law banned nu­clear weapons in New Zealand, in­clud­ing those that might be car­ried on Amer­i­can war­ships. Since the US would nei­ther con­firm nor deny if any par­tic­u­lar ship was nu­clear-armed, US mil­i­tary ves­sels were ef­fec­tively ex­cluded. This ended New Zealand’s in­volve­ment in the Anzus al­liance with the US and Aus­tralia. For years af­ter that time, mil­i­tary co-op­er­a­tion with the Amer­i­cans dwin­dled to al­most noth­ing, out­side the con­tin­u­ing US Antarc­tic Pro­gramme at Christchurch sup­ported by the US Air Force and Air Na­tional Guard.

The re­sump­tion of US ship vis­its, ap­proved by New Zealand on a case-by-case ba­sis, does not mean the old al­liances have been re­in­stated. Rather, it shows that the Cold War ver­i­ties which made the nu­clear ban so contentious are no longer rel­e­vant. The Anzus Treaty re­quired us to shel­ter un­der the Amer­i­can nu­clear um­brella, which Labour prime min­is­ter David Lange ar­gued was ‘‘morally in­de­fen­si­ble’’. Af­ter the Soviet Union col­lapsed, how­ever, the um­brella could be at least par­tially furled.

The reap­pear­ance of Amer­i­can ships in our wa­ters can now be seen as a pro­jec­tion of what has been termed ‘‘soft power’’, build­ing re­la­tion­ships and un­der­stand­ing rather than demon­strat­ing mil­i­tary might. The Amer­i­can help in our times of emer­gency is gen­uine and ap­pre­ci­ated, but it also greatly as­sists US in­ter­ests in win­ning over hearts and minds, par­tic­u­larly at a time when China is as­sert­ing its in­flu­ence in the Pa­cific.

What has to be re­mem­bered is that New Zealand has also grown up a lot since the Anzus tiff 30 years ago. The an­ti­nu­clear stance has ma­tured into a more ro­bustly in­de­pen­dent New Zealand for­eign pol­icy. The old al­liances with Bri­tain and the US are in the past. New Zealand is now more in­ter­ested in the United Na­tions and other mul­ti­lat­eral ar­range­ments.

Our in­de­pen­dent small-na­tion stance will be­come more im­por­tant in the Trumpian era, when US for­eign pol­icy will be­come more un­cer­tain and un­pre­dictable. Our help­ful Amer­i­can friends are very wel­come here, but it is good to ex­tend the hand of friend­ship on our own terms, and not as a ju­nior part­ner in an out­dated al­liance.

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