Change of heart on NZ-US military ties

By Audrey Young

Richard Armitage, the former high-ranking United States official most closely associated with reprisals against New Zealand's anti-nuclear law, has had a change of heart and is now arguing for closer military ties.

Mr Armitage, the former Deputy Secretary of State under Colin Powell, now says "there is no need to take an overly punitive approach" to New Zealand and says it is no longer in the United States' interests to maintain its ban on military exercises.

He suggests in an article that New Zealand could work more closely with the US, for example in the South Pacific and in patrolling the Malacca Straits, between Malaysia and Indonesia.

"New Zealand has demonstrated its commitment to spreading freedom. New Zealand Defence Forces have played a vital role in the war against terror in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. If only Washington were free to work with this like-minded ally in further missions."

The views of Mr Armitage, still an influential figure in Washington, appear in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal Asia edition co-authored by Randy Schriver, who served with him as US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Both men also attended the US NZ Partnership Forum in Washington last week on the US-New Zealand relationship organised by the New Zealand United States Council.

They also argue for a free trade agreement with New Zealand and cite the nuclear issue as the suspected reason the US has refused to commit to negotiations.

When the David Lange-led Labour Government introduced the law, Mr Armitage was the Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security.

He has long been regarded as a staunch defender of the ban on military exercises.

In the article, Mr Armitage has no argument about the most fundamental US response to the law that bans nuclear powered and armed ships - suspending the guarantee under the Anzus treaty to protect New Zealand in the event of an attack.

But he says that should not preclude military co-operation in other areas.

He said the ban on military exercises with New Zealand applied even if exercises were held in a third country. That meant third countries were often reluctant to invite New Zealand to defence exercises.

"We feel this no longer best serves American interests. The US military is spread thinly in various missions around the world and could use all the help it can get. New Zealand not only shares similar democratic values, it has increasing capacity to promote them abroad."

Wellington was modernising its armed forces in a 10-year plan that envisages a 51 per cent increase in defence spending from 1999 levels and the new defence strategy endorsed greater involvement in regional and international security efforts.

The US has to seek a high-level Pentagon waiver every time it wants to exercise with New Zealand, which is happening more often under the Proliferation Security Initiative - an initiative set up by President George W. Bush after September 11 aimed at intercepting weapons of mass destruction.

When Defence Minister Phil Goff met US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week in Washington, he sought a review of the ban on joint exercises to accommodate in the PSI.

Mr Armitage goes further and says the ban should be dropped.

The article also champions a free trade agreement between the two countries and it gave weight to what is officially denied - that the nuclear ban is linked to a free trade ban.

"Washington's refusal to commit to negotiations with Wellington on a free trade agreement gives reason to suspect that US officials are viewing this issue through the prism of a nuclear policy."

But it adds that New Zealand's interest in pursing an FTA may be seen in some quarters of Washington as useful leverage for persuading Wellington to re-examine its anti-nuclear legislation. "This is another example of wasted potential.

"A properly structured FTA would benefit both economies," the article says - but adds that the mood of the forum was not optimistic about achieving one.

The article concludes that regardless of the United States' disagreement with New Zealand on the nuclear issue, "there is no need to take an overly punitive approach, especially when it harms Washington's own interests".

Former Defence Secretary and former Ambassador to Washington Denis McLean said last night that Mr Armitage's article was significant and important.

He had taken a very strict line with New Zealand from the start.

"It's very significant that somebody with Armitage's defence experience as well his time as Deputy Secretary of State has come out so firmly for a change in the military relationship and for added space for New Zealand in the military and training area.

"He was a leading figure from the US point of view in laying down the line that New Zealand was not behaving as an ally in the steps it took in the 1980s."

Mr Armitage, whom Mr McLean regards as a friend, had told him in effect when he took up his post in Washington: "Just enjoy yourself in Washington because the relationship is going nowhere."

Mr McLean lamented what he saw as New Zealand's inability to have a rational conversation about the nuclear issue.