In all likelihood the post-ANZUS era in New Zealand-US defence relations will be completely and utterly over in March next year. In my view, Washington is likely to accept Wellington's request to send a vessel to the Royal NZ Navy's 75th anniversary Fleet Review. It was a possible visit in 1985 by a US naval vessel which catalysed the emerging showdown over New Zealand's nuclear-free policy. So the first such arrival in over 30 years can't be more poignant. Short of the unlikely return to a formal ANZUS relationship, no single act can do more to remove any doubts that NZ-US military ties have achieved a new normal. The post-post-ANZUS period has well and truly arrived.
Whether the United States sends a cruiser, destroyer or frigate, the technical aspects will be the same. New Zealand's Prime Minister will be able to be ascertain that the vessel is neither nuclear propelled nor nuclear-armed. That certainty will be at the same level as it has been for naval visits from other nuclear-armed states, including the United Kingdom and China. And this is not new. The US policy that it no longer has nuclear weapons on surface ships (as opposed to some of its submarines) is well established, having arrived during the Presidency of the first George Bush. But it was simply not palatable or sensible to test the situation in the NZ-US context for many years. As a red rag to the bull of New Zealand's anti-nuclear sentiment and without an active military relationship between the two countries, a US naval visit would have stood out like a sore thumb. Both countries worked around it. From what I can tell, there was an informal understanding that the United States would not seek to send a vessel and New Zealand would not request a visit.
Unless things change significantly over the next three months, the Fleet Review will take place at a time of continuing maritime tensions in the South China Sea. China and the United States, and their navies, are engaged in a somewhat risky game of move and counter-move. This context will make any visits to New Zealand by American and Chinese vessels more symbolic than would normally be the case. And we can expect both the US Navy and the PLA Navy to be there at Devonport. Knowing that China will likely take up any chance to come makes it even more likely that the US will be there too. But even without that competitive dynamic, it makes sense for Washington to show how far its renewed partnership with New Zealand has come.
Photo: Devonport base