New Zealand-US conflict reignites. Proposed law threatens to sink longtime defense treaty with US

New Zealand unveiled its long-awaited legislation banning nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships from visiting the country's ports yesterday. The move threatens another crisis between New Zealand and the United States over the future of the 1951 ANZUS defense treaty linking the two countries with Australia.

The Reagan administration has already declared the treaty ``inoperative,'' following New Zealand's refusal early this year to accept a port visit by a US Navy ship because there was no guarantee it was not carrying nuclear weapons.

Reagan administration officials have threatened that the US will terminate its defense commitments to New Zealand if the new law, introduced into parliament yesterday by Prime Minister David Lange, is enacted. (Washington has pledged to retain its defense alliance with Australia.)

Speaking in parliament, Mr. Lange maintained his stance that the bill is antinuclear, not anti-American, and held that it was compatible with New Zealand's obligations under terms of the ANZUS treaty. He said the bill had been carefully drawn up to ensure that the US -- and Britain, which had also criticized it in advance -- were not asked to break their long-standing policies of refusing to confirm or deny whether particular ships are nuclear-armed at any given time.

The bill will make the prime minister responsible for deciding whether any ship may enter New Zealand's ``internal waters,'' having satisfied himself that it is not carrying nuclear weapons.

Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer said the legislation would take New Zealand out of ANZUS only if that were the will of the US government.

Mr. Palmer failed to win US support for the legislation when he visited Washington in September. Last month, the Reagan administration refused to meet with a special New Zealand envoy carrying final details of the bill, saying there was nothing to talk about.

A copy of the legislation, entitled ``New Zealand Nuclear-Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Bill,'' finally went to Washington last week via the US Embassy in Wellington.

There has been no public response from the administration, which sees the bill as the last straw in its long-running row with Lange's Labour government. The government was elected in a landslide in July 1984, after campaigning heavily on its antinuclear policies.

Following the refusal to accept the USS Buchanan early this year, Washington ended formal defense cooperation with New Zealand, pulling out of joint military exercises, cutting the flow of intelligence, and declaring ANZUS inoperative. US officials said freedom for Navy ships to visit New Zealand ports was essential to the alliance.

It is known that the New Zealand government made a number of amendments to the bill before it was introduced in an effort to meet US concerns.

Previous proposals that a decision to allow a port call be made by a committee, acting on independent reports from the Defense Ministry and the government's Intelligence Council, and that the verdict be subject to review by the courts have been dropped.

The US objected to these procedures, fearing that the involvement of so many people would risk leaks that would telegraph the state of a ship's armaments to an enemy. Lange said all along he was prepared to make amendments to satisfy the US -- but the basic antinuclear principles of the bill were inviolate.

The nuclear ship ban is confined to ``internal waters,'' held to mean port visits. There are provisions to allow passage for ``any ship exercising the right of innocent passage (in accordance with international law) through the territorial seas of New Zealand,'' and transit passage through international navigation straits. This means there is nothing to stop US nuclear ships from patroling off the New Zealand coast or passing through the narrow Cook Strait, separating the south and north islands.

Nuclear ship visits account for only a small part of the overall bill, which incorporates the new South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty, signed by nine countries in the region, the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968.

The opposition National Party vowed to repeal the legislation, which was introduced by a vote of 48-30.

Opposition spokesmen said the bill would destroy ANZUS and comfort the Soviets. They described it as the biggest-ever ``left turn'' in foreign policy.

The bill now goes to a parliamentary committee before returning to the full House of Representatives next year.

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