N. Zealand tries to mend fences with US on ship visits

New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer arrives in Washington Wednesday to try to break the deadlock over his country's ban on port calls by United States nuclear ships. The ban, imposed by New Zealand's labor government as part of a nationwide anti-nuclear policy, has severely strained relations between the two long-time allies and all but ended the 33-year-old ANZUS defense treaty linking New Zealand, Australia, and the US.

Mr. Palmer, who will meet Secretary of State George Shultz Thursday, sees his mission as of crucial importance. He says his government is committed to ending what he calls the ``standoff'' with the US before relations are irreparably damaged.

In an interview with the Monitor before leaving Wellington, Palmer warned that failure to resolve the issue could force New Zealand into a position that ``will alter our strategic stance in the world permanently.''

His remark appeared to hint that New Zealand, traditionally a staunch member of the Western alliance that fought with the US in two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam, could shift into neutrality. Yet that has been firmly rejected by the government to date.

``The fact is that we are at some sort of a watershed on this which may have permanent consequences,'' Palmer said. He concedes that there is no easy solution, given the refusal of both sides to compromise their basic policies. He does not expect his trip to solve the impasse, but says: ``I'm going to try and make some progress.''

The New Zealand government is pledged to keep the country nuclear-free and will welcome US warship visits under the ANZUS treaty -- providing they are not armed with nuclear weapons. The US, however, is adamant about not breaking its policy of refusing to confirm or deny whether a particular ship is so armed.

The row came to a head in January when New Zealand rejected a US request to have a ship visit here. The US said ship visits were vital to ANZUS; declared the treaty inoperative; and cut off all military intelligence, training, and exercises with New Zealand forces.

Prime Minister David Lange says he wants a nuclear-free New Zealand and membership in ANZUS, a view shared by most New Zealanders, according to opinion polls. Washington says they cannot have both.

Palmer says surely friends and allies can work out a solution without compromising either side's policies. But he will be bringing documents to Washington that could torpedo any agreement from the start.

The documents will include draft legislation for the New Zealand parliament intended to back the country's nuclear ban with legal force. Aimed at lifting the onus of declaring a ship to be nuclear-free from the US, the law will give the prime minister responsibility for deciding whether a ship is nuclear-armed. Some US officials are said to regard the new law as the last straw. Palmer knows Washington dislikes the idea, but says he is ready to consult the Americans, although not negotiate.

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