By Ernie Bower
Leon Panetta will be the first US secretary of defense to set foot on the shaky isles of New Zealand in three decades today. Some press reports looking ahead to his visit have suggested that he and the Americans will ask New Zealand to reverse the ban on nuclear ship visits. This is about as likely as the US Eagles rugby team beating the All Blacks at Eden Park. For those not familiar with the gentle game, this is something that is not about to happen any time soon.
In fact, the visit is not about big and unreasonable asks, nor is it likely to result in headline worthy announcements of new initiatives. That is not the high profile trajectory the practical and determined United States and New Zealand security leaders have set about building.
Instead, the goal is to fulfill a new and serious shared commitment to align the substantially overlapping interests of the two countries and to regularize the relationship. Panetta and his counterpart New Zealand defense minister John Coleman will work on building substantive but low profile cooperation under their Washington Declaration signed in June. This agreement and the Wellington Declaration inked by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and NZ foreign minister Murray McCully in November of 2010 provide the political signal to both bureaucracies to get back to working together without reservation.
The Americans have gotten over the hump in the last several years, and won’t allow the nuclear ban to divert what is a natural friendship and rational partnership. Washington recognizes it needs to align and understand its friends in Asia – and go to a new and more granular level of engagement – so that understand who has the capability, capacity and interest in participating in various parts of a spectrum of security engagement spanning the Asia Pacific region.
Mr. Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser & Chair for Southeast Asia Studies and co-director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.