On the face of it, it doesn't look like much: one Orion aircraft, a liaison officer, and two customs staff sent from New Zealand to participate in multinational defense force exercises aimed at capturing ships carrying weapons of mass destruction.
But Operation Deep Sabre, taking place this week off Singapore's coast, is a rare instance, where US troops will be training alongside New Zealand troops.
Since New Zealand was thrown out of the ANZUS alliance, in which the US guarantees the security of New Zealand and Australia, New Zealand has mostly been out in the cold - missing out on the technological breakthroughs and experience of the past 20 years.
The US Embassy in New Zealand has refused to comment on whether this move means a thawing of relations. The US-New Zealand divide began in 1985, when in accordance with its new antinuclear stance, the latter refused a visit from a US warship. "The US strongly supports New Zealand's participation in the PSI (proliferation security initiative) so as a result we have issued a waiver in this situation so they can participate," an embassy spokesperson said in a statement published by the New Zealand Herald.
Since 9/11, the US has increased cooperation with countries who can help in the fight against terrorism. New Zealand sent troops to Afghanistan, and for a short time helped with the reconstruction of Iraq.
New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark has been strongly advocating opening negotiations with the US. The new US trade representative, Robert Portman, is regarded as being more sympathetic to Wellington than his predecessor.
Experts say these changes are more step-by-step than a revolutionary shift. "I regard the continuing exclusion of New Zealand as very strange," says former New Zealand cabinet minister, Derek Quigley, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University's Defense and Strategic Institute in Canberra. While the US is happy to have New Zealand personnel in the line of fire, he adds, they are largely excluded from training with the US.
Other experts say that the significance of the 13-nation exercises in the South China Sea are being underplayed. "Earlier cooperation was based on operations, but these are exercises where you learn testing procedures, and capabilities, and have debriefings," says Peter Cozens, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Wellington. He adds that obdurate attitudes both in Washington and in Wellington are giving way to a new security relationship. "Since Sept. 11, it's now all hands on the pump."
New Zealand is conscious of opportunities lost in the past two decades: The chance to be included in a free-trade deal with the US, currently being negotiated with Australia, as well as the loss of a direct voice at the ANZUS council table. "We are now dependent on Australia for all our defense ties, while Australia has the complete running of the region when it sits down with the US in defense talks," Mr. Quigley says.
However, New Zealand's status might have played to its advantage in relations with China. Some China watchers in New Zealand believe this small South Pacific country may beat Australia to signing a free-trade deal with Beijing.
In the wake of World War II, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States signed the security treaty known as the ANZUS pact in 1951. When New Zealand established its antinuclear policies in 1985, a US destroyer was refused entry at a New Zealand port. The US suspended its ANZUS obligations to New Zealand. That rift still stands today. The creator of the antinuclear policy, former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange, died last Saturday in Aukland.