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Panetta to meet top New Zealand officials

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2012

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta will meet Friday with New Zealand's defense minister to cap a 10-day trip to the Asia Pacific to advance the Pentagon's "pivot" to the region.

It is the first time a U.S. defense secretary will have visited New Zealand since 1982, when Caspar Weinberger visited the country.

The two countries had experienced a freeze in their relationship in the 1980s, resulting in New Zealand denying U.S. military ships permission to visit its ports, and the U.S. responded likewise.

U.S. defense officials say there has been a significant warming in relations in recent years.

At this point, officials say, the U.S. is working on establishing a "new normal" in relations with New Zealand. Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman visited Washington in June, when the two nations signed the Washington Declaration, a framework for expanding bilateral military cooperation.

"The primary purpose of this trip is to talk about and really engage in a dialogue with Wellington [the capital] on where they see themselves in the rebalance, where we can work together as part and parcel of this overall strategy and looking forward to good consultations on that issue," a senior defense official said.

New Zealand has "deep ties and good relations" with other South Pacific nations, including a free trade agreement with China, the official said.

Areas in which U.S. and New Zealand can cooperate in the short term are Afghanistan, cybersecurity, counter-piracy and humanitarian disaster relief, the official said. In addition, New Zealand is interested in developing its amphibious capabilities, which the Marine Corps could help with.

"There is not much of a pitch needed. I think the point is that there is a large demand signal coming from New Zealand for closer defense ties, and that's precisely why we signed the Washington Declaration and are moving in that direction," the official said.

Mr. Panetta will arrive Friday in Auckland, and visit the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the World War II Hall of Memories, where he will lay a wreath to honor recently fallen New Zealand troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission.

The country lost five troops in August, including its first female combat casualty. The country currently has a provincial reconstruction team in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and will transition its troops to an advise-and-assist role in 2013.

The defense secretary also will present a medal to New Zealand Defense Force Service members, then meet with the foreign affairs minister. On Saturday, he will have a one-on-one meeting with the prime minister.

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