New Zealand politics puts South Pacific defense treaty in limbo

Secretary of State George Shultz could find himself at one of the most bizarre international conferences of his career when he arrives in Wellington later this month.

On July 16 and 17, Mr. Shultz will meet with his counterparts from the other ANZUS nations - Australia and New Zealand - to discuss their defense treaty.

On July 14, 2 million New Zealanders are voting in a snap general election which features membership in the ANZUS treaty as a major campaign issue.

If the opposition Labor Party wins the election - it is seven points ahead in the latest opinion poll - New Zealand will have a government pledged to abandon ANZUS in its present form.

But since that government would not be sworn in until about a week later, its ministers would be barred from the closed-door meeting. Shultz would find himself consulting with representatives of a lame-duck National Party administration, which fully supports ANZUS.

Even worse is the prospect that New Zealand will not have a new government at all. That would happen if the ballot for the expanded 95-seat House of Representatives is inconclusive.

This would give two minority parties, the Social Credit Political League and New Zealand Party, some negotiating power, if they manage to win seats.

Both minority parties are also pledged to do away with the 33-year-old ANZUS treaty, though the New Zealand Party says it would put the issue to a national referendum before acting.

The ANZUS treaty has long been regarded by successive New Zealand and Australian governments as the very cornerstone of their nations' defense and foreign policies. It has been widely held to mean that the US would come to their aid if they were attacked, putting both countries under the US nuclear umbrella.

New Zealand's Labor Party has challenged this view, saying the treaty offers no guarantees, is outdated, and in fact endangers New Zealand security by linking it with the nuclear arms race.

Labor's policy is to ''renegotiate'' ANZUS to acknowledge New Zealand's independence, and change it into an all-encompassing political and economic agreement. The party says it will do this, even if it means the end of the alliance.

Key to the policy is a ban on visits by US nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered warships. Labor says such visits, which have drawn bitter antinuclear demonstrations in recent years, make New Zealand a potential nuclear target.

The national government rejects this, saying a shipping ban is not compatible with membership in ANZUS.

The US Embassy appeared to enter the fray June 29 when Ambassador H. Monroe Browne distributed a speech made recently to Pennsylvania State University by Paul Wolfowitz, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. The speech stated that ''the United States attaches critical importance to the opportunity to use Australian and New Zealand ports that provide ready access to the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. We view Australia's and New Zealand's willingness to allow us use of their ports as part of their contribution to ANZUS.''

Labor Party leader David Lange described the ambassador's move as a ''venture into a political debate in New Zealand during a general election campaign'' and said it was ''absolutely improper.''

The timing of the July 16-17 meeting was set months ago to allow Secretary Shultz to go to Jakarta for a meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of South-East Asian Nations July 11-13 before flying to New Zealand's capital.

The New Zealand general election was then set for November. But Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, hampered by a working majority of only one seat in Parliament, announced the snap election June 15 in a bid to get a fresh mandate.

It was assumed the ANZUS meeting would be postponed, and Sir Robert's decision to go ahead with it has stunned diplomats and observers. Sources say the decision was privately deplored in Washington and Canberra, Australia's capital, by officials who see the meeting packed with potential embarrassment.

Labor leader Lange, who would be prime minister in the new government, has said publicly only that he would welcome the chance to send representatives to the meeting and would be available for separate talks with Shultz and Australian Foreign Minister William Hayden.

Privately, aides describe the decision to go ahead as ''crazy'' and say Shultz should not come. Officials say there is no chance of the outgoing government inviting Labor to sit in even if it does win.

US Embassy officials here are tight-lipped about the situation. But privately they are hoping that Lange - seen by many as being less committed to changing ANZUS than are his left-wing colleagues - will tone down the policy if elected.

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