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Why did Chuck Hagel snub New Zealand?

  Sam Roggeveen of Australia’s Lowy Institute noticed some odd phrasing in Chuck Hagel’s remarks on Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. When the secretary of defense was going through a list of America’s partners in the Pacific, he left New Zealand off a list of "allies" that included Japan, South Korea, Australia, and ...

 

Sam Roggeveen of Australia’s Lowy Institute noticed some odd phrasing in Chuck Hagel’s remarks on Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. When the secretary of defense was going through a list of America’s partners in the Pacific, he left New Zealand off a list of "allies" that included Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines, instead lumping the country in with somewhat more complicated relationships such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Myanmar. Here’s what he actually said: 

Our Allies are also working more closely together.  In this vein we are encouraged by growing trilateral security cooperation between especially the U.S., Japan, and the Republic of Korea, as well as the U.S., Japan, and Australia.  The United States is also looking at trilateral training opportunities such as jungle training between the U.S. and Thailand that could also expand to incorporate the Republic of Korea.  Similarly, the United States is working to build trilateral cooperation with Japan and India.

Complex security threats facing the United States and our allies – which go beyond traditional domains and borders – demand these new approaches to Alliance cooperation, and they also demand new and enhanced partnerships as well.

Here in Singapore I look forward to building on our new practical collaboration under the U.S.-Singapore Strategic Framework Agreement, which has guided security cooperation not only in this region, but in the Gulf of Aden and Afghanistan as well.

With New Zealand, the signing of the Washington Declaration and associated policy changes have opened up new avenues for defense cooperation in areas such as maritime security cooperation, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.  This week, in Guam, a New Zealand Navy ship is visiting a U.S. Naval facility – the first such visit in nearly 30 years.

With the Vietnamese, we are expanding our cooperation – as set forth in a new memorandum of understanding – in maritime security, training opportunities, search-and-rescue, peacekeeping, military medical exchanges, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. 

In Malaysia, we are expanding maritime cooperation, including the first-ever visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier to Sabah. 

In Myanmar, we are beginning targeted, carefully calibrated military-to-military engagement aimed at ensuring the military supports ongoing reforms, respects human rights, and a professional force accountable to the country’s leadership.

What is Hagel talking about? Well, the U.S.-New Zealand military relationship is actually more complicated than you might think. 

It all dates back to 1985, when New Zealand, citing its strict nuclear-free policy, denied port access to a U.S. destroyer because Washington would not confirm or deny whether the ship was nuclear-powered. In retaliation, New Zealand’s warships have been barred from U.S. ports for the last 28 years. This issue reared its head in the summer of 2012 when two New Zealand ships were barred from entering Pearl Harbor during the 22-nation RIMPAC excercises.

Last September, Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, became the first U.S. defense secretary to visit New Zealand since 1982, and agreed to lift the ban on New Zealand ships entering U.S. ports. As Hagel noted, this will happen for the first time this week when the frigate Te Mana — one of the ships denied entry from Pearl Harbor last year — docks at Guam. But as certain commentators noted last year, the deal Panetta announced didn’t include any assurances that the Kiwis would allow U.S. ships to dock in its ports. 

New Zealand Foreign Secretary Murray McCullay addressed this issue last week: 

"As far as the US is concerned, we’ve made it clear that it’s not something we’re prepared to negotiate on."

Mr McCully says it’s up to the US if it wants to accept Prime Minister John Key’s offer to send a US Coastguard vessel to New Zealand – as long as it’s not nuclear-powered.

In other words, despite otherwise cordial relations between the two countries, there’s little indication that the naval dispute will end anytime soon. Hence, their inclusion in the Myanmar part of the speech rather than the Australia part.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating
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