Ties with US must be on NZ’s terms
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.