Wellington, New Zealand — Nearly seven months after a Labor government advocating a strict antinu-clear policy was swept into power in New Zealand, the expected head-on clash with the United States has come. As a result, the joint naval exercises among the US, New Zealand, and Australia due to be held off Australia's coast next month have been canceled, and the ANZUS defense treaty is being reviewed.
After weeks of diplomatic exchanges, the New Zealand government rejected a Washington request to send a US Navy ship here on a routine goodwill visit. Prime Minister David Lange's government will not accept a ship if there is any prospect that it might be carrying nuclear weapons. The US maintains a longstand-ing policy of neither confirming nor denying whether its ships are nuclear-armed at any given time.
Lange invited the US Navy to send one of the 20 percent of its ships that are known to have no nuclear capacity. The US declined because it did not want to be seen as giving in to a policy that could spread to other allies, such as Japan, with politically sensitive antinuclear lobbies.
It is a classic David and Goliath encounter, aggravated by the length and strength of the relationship between the two countries.
New Zealand's military forces total no more than 12,600. But its servicemen have fought alongside Americans in every war they have contested this century, including Vietnam, and thousands of GIs passed through here during World War II. New Zealand, Australia, and the US signed the ANZUS mutual defense treaty in 1951.
The future of ANZUS is in question as a result of the Lange government's antinuclear stand.
Washington requested a port visit by the destroyer USS Buchanan -- a formality under the previous National Party, which ruled all but three years between 1960 and 1984 -- to follow an ANZUS exercise code-named Sea Eagle in Australian waters. Mr. Lange turned down the request.
[Reuters reports that after confirming the cancellation of the exercises on Tuesday, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said, ``We are considering other actions that we might take but at this time we have no further decisions.'' US officials also said that joint US-Australian naval exercises were likely to be scheduled instead.]
Lange refuses to accept that the future of ANZUS is on the line. He remains adamant that ``our policy is against nuclear weapons, not against the United States, not against the alliance, not against ANZUS.''
He told a press conference as the issue boiled up: ``I have very few really burning convictions in political life, and being opposed to nuclear armaments escalation and their existence is one of them.''
Lange, the son of a Methodist preacher, has been consistent in his stand from the start. He also accepts the consistency of the US position but appears not to understand why Washington will not nominate a vessel and ``give him a nod and a wink'' that it's not carrying nuclear weapons.
Last week, Lange said New Zealand is and intends to remain a committed member of ANZUS. He said it would be absurd for this one rather narrow issue to put off balance a relationship ``which draws its strength from the partnership of two peoples who have stood together in times of war and peace.''
Lange's dilemma appears to reflect the confusion of New Zealanders over the issue. A national opinion poll taken last August showed 58 percent of New Zealanders opposed visits by nuclear-armed warships, against 30 percent who supported them (12 percent had no opinion).
But 59 percent backed visits by nuclear-powered ships (as long as they are not nuclear armed) against 29 percent who opposed. Government policy opposes visits by both types of vessels. A December poll showed 60 percent of New Zealanders favored continued membership in ANZUS, with 22 percent against it.
With Lange pledged to introduce legislation into Parliament soon to make New Zealand a nuclear-free zone -- thus giving his policy the force of law -- there seemed no solution to the impasse.
The feeling here is that New Zealand will be quietly nominated a sleeping partner in the ANZUS alliance, with exchanges of intelligence information at least withdrawn, while Washington waits until the Lange government switches its position -- which is unlikely -- or is replaced at the next election, due by July 1987.