US Navy plans on return to New Zealand after 30-year nuclear rift

The United States has accepted an invitation from New Zealand to attend a naval celebration in November, more than 30 years after the country blocked a US ship from docking.  

Greg Bowker/New Zealand Herald/AP
Vice President Joe Biden (l.) and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key speak during a joint press conference in Auckland Thursday. The US Navy has accepted an invitation to attend a naval celebration in New Zealand.

The United States has accepted an invitation to send a Navy ship to New Zealand, which would end a more than 30-year dispute between the nations over information about the US Navy's nuclear capabilities. 

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said a US ship intends to attend the Royal New Zealand Navy's 75th anniversary if the ship meets the country's legal nuclear requirements, which first sparked a dispute between the two nations in 1985. 

"We are naturally pleased the US is taking up the invitation," Mr. Key told the New Zealand Herald. "It is a further demonstration of the strength of our close relationship, our friendship and our shared values."

The debate between the two started in the mid-1980s, when the New Zealand government refused a docking request by the USS Buchanan after the United States would not confirm or deny if the destroyer were carrying nuclear weapons. New Zealand had passed a law barring any nuclear-powered ships or ships carrying nuclear arms from entering New Zealand's waters. 

That act started a now-decades long period of disagreement between the two nations, although they remained close allies throughout. The US considered the refusal a breach of the ANZUS – the Australia, New Zealand, US Security Treaty – and suspended its related obligations to New Zealand in 1986. 

In many other ways, however, the two remained close partners. New Zealand is now part of an intelligence-sharing group with the US and allows US planes to land on their way to Antarctica. The country also sent troops to Afghanistan, and currently has troops in Iraq, training locals to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State militant group, Stars and Stripes reports. In 2010, US Marines resumed training in New Zealand, and the US has allowed New Zealand to dock ships in Hawaii. 

"There's an understanding that the world has changed and we need to have a better relationships with our friends in Wellington," Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Center for Strategic & International Studies' Pacific Forum, told Stars and Stripes. "Our objective is always to work more closely with like-minded countries."

Before finalizing the Navy's attendance, New Zealand must still confirm whether the US ship will respect New Zealand's laws. 

"There is a long-standing process for considering ship visits under our nuclear-free legislation," Key said. "I will receive advice in due course to assist me in making a decision."

Although US policy is to not confirm or deny if a ship has nuclear capabilities, Key told the Herald if he is satisfied the ship is within the guidelines of law, the confirmation is not required. Publicly available information about the ships can help make that determination, according to the Herald. 

"It would be very odd for us to have all of our friends and acquaintances there and sending ships to celebrate the 75th naval commemoration and not have the United States there," Key said. 

This report includes material from Reuters. 

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