The United States has lifted a ban that prevented New Zealand naval ships visiting US ports or bases since the 1980s, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday, hailing a "new era" in relations between the two nations.
The policy change, part of efforts to bolster security ties, will "allow the US Secretary of Defence to authorise individual visits to Department of Defence or coastguard facilities in the United States and around the world", he said.
"I suspect that soon we'll be able to see one of those ships in our ports," he added, when asked when New Zealand vessels would stop in the US.
In a news conference with New Zealand Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman, the Pentagon chief also announced the end to restrictions on meetings between defence officials and military exercises.
"These changes I think are important and are in the interests of both our nations," he said.
The announcement underscored improving defence ties between the two countries since a chill during the cold war when New Zealand banned visits by US nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships.
"While we acknowledge that our countries continue to have differences of opinion in some limited areas, today we have affirmed that we are embarking on a new course that will not let these differences stand in the way of greater engagement on security issues," Panetta added.
The Australia, New Zealand, US Security (Anzus) treaty was suspended between Wellington and Washington in 1986 amid concerns in Wellington about French nuclear tests in the South Pacific and US foreign policy.
In return, the US prohibited New Zealand naval ships from docking at it ports and bases.
But Coleman ruled out any change to New Zealand's nuclear-free policy.
"We are in a new era and I don't think we should get hung up about trying to turn the clock back to pre-1986 because the reality is the relationship is very, very good," Coleman said.
"In terms of restrictions from the New Zealand side we are very clear about our policy and the US has been very understanding. We've moved on from the point where that is an issue."
The Obama administration has pushed to bolster military ties in the region as part of a strategic shift towards the Asia-Pacific. Panetta's trip to New Zealand was the first by a Pentagon chief in 30 years and the first since the Anzus treaty was suspended between the two countries.
The Pentagon chief later visited the second world war Hall of Memories overlooking Auckland, paying respects to war dead, and then presented medals to five New Zealand troops who served in Afghanistan.
Panetta's trip follows US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signing a deal in 2010 formalising a thaw in relations with Wellington, which called for deeper co-operation in combating climate change, the spread of nuclear weapons and extremism.
It also committed the two sides to promoting renewable energy and boosting capacities to fight natural disasters.