US Navy secretary to visit New Zealand as talk of port calls heats up

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TOKYO: US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is set to visit New Zealand this week for a trip that could move Washington closer to resolving a decades-old dispute with Wellington over port calls for US vessels, it was learned Monday.

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During his trip, Mabus plans to discuss a range of issues with military officials, including the first formal invitation for a US naval vessel to visit since the country passed nuclear-free legislation in 1987, a statement posted Monday to the website of the US Embassy in New Zealand said.

The Royal New Zealand Navy is celebrating its 75th anniversary later this year and has extended a formal invitation to the US. The statement, however, stressed that the anniversary invitation is not the purpose of Mabus’ visit.

“Yes, the United States has received an invitation to the Royal New Zealand Navy anniversary celebration planned for this coming November,” Mabus said in the statement. “No decision has been made yet and we do not have a timeframe on when a decision will be made.”

No US vessels have visited since the anti-nuclear legislation was passed, although Prime Minister John Key had voiced openness to a visit from a coast guard vessel, the New Zealand Herald reported Monday. The US announced in 1991 and reaffirmed in 2004 that its vessels did not carry nuclear arms but has otherwise had a policy of refusing to confirm or deny the nuclear capabilities of its vessels, the report said.

New Zealand law says the prime minister must be “satisfied” that visiting ships are not carrying nuclear weapons.

According to the Herald report, Key said last week that it was possible he could be assured of that no nuclear weapons-laden vessel would enter New Zealand waters without the U.S. confirming it, depending on the type of vessel Washington opted to send if it accepted the invitation.

Wellington is a key ally of Washington in the Asia-Pacific region, and is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance together with the U.S., Australia, Canada and Britain.

“Our bilateral military cooperation with New Zealand is strong, and we continue to partner in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and peacekeeping support operations,” Mabus said in the statement. TNS

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