New Zealand politicians, media riled up over Pearl Harbor berthing denial
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU — The Royal New Zealand Navy, here for Rim of the Pacific exercises for the first time in 28 years, has sailed into a maelstrom of political controversy before even leaving Honolulu Harbor for the seagoing part of the war games.
The fact that New Zealand's two warships, the frigate Te Kaha and tanker Endeavour, are tied up at touristy Aloha Tower — and not in Pearl Harbor with the rest of the international fleet — has become a source of angst for that nation.
"Petty, petulant and pathetic," the New Zealand Herald's chief political commentator opined. "What other conclusion is it possible to draw from the absurd, vindictive and ultimately short-sighted refusal by the United States to allow two New Zealand naval vessels to berth at the Pearl Harbor military base?"
Prime Minister John Key said it was known ahead of time that the New Zealand ships would not be allowed in Pearl Harbor, and that the exclusion was not a snub, the newspaper reported.
But Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman was quoted as saying he found out only when someone drew his attention to a Star-Advertiser article last week. One political party has blamed another for what it said was a gaffe.
The port ban stems from a nearly 30-year-old U.S. standoff with New Zealand over that country's anti-nuclear policy and a prohibition on visits to New Zealand by U.S. Navy warships that are nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed. U.S. policy is to neither confirm nor deny if its ships carry nuclear weapons.
In turn, the United States has banned visits to its military ports by New Zealand warships.
Military-to-military relations between the United States and New Zealand have been improving since at least 2003, when New Zealand sent troops to Afghanistan.
In 2010 a "strategic partnership" agreement, the Wellington Declaration, was reached that "nearly normalized the relationship," the Pentagon said.
The agreement helped pave the way for New Zealand to return to RIMPAC for the first time in 28 years.
On June 19, the two countries signed what's called the Washington Declaration at the Pentagon, expanding the defense relationship.
The U.S. Navy's exclusion of the 387-foot Te Kaha and the 452-foot Endeavour from Pearl Harbor has become a hotly discussed topic in New Zealand.
"We're still being given the cold shoulder despite a much-publicized thawing of our military relationship with the United States," Television New Zealand ONE News said in a broadcast on Tuesday, calling the situation an "embarrassment for the government."
The newscast noted that while Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 but is now welcomed, New Zealand is the only nation "relegated to a tourist marina" for RIMPAC.
Twenty-two nations, 25,000 personnel, 40 ships, six submarines and more than 200 aircraft are participating in RIMPAC in and around the Hawaiian Islands through Aug. 3.
The U.S. Navy said all other foreign ships, including those of former Cold War foe Russia, which is participating for the first time, are ported in Pearl Harbor.
The New Zealand Herald polled its readers Tuesday, asking, "Should we be at RIMPAC, given the U.S. has banned our navy from Pearl Harbor?"
Of about 5,700 votes, 27 percent said "skip it in light of the petty ban," 41 percent said "it's still a valuable exercise, even if we don't get to park where we want," and 30 percent said "yes, but our government could have responded better, given our aid to the U.S. in Afghanistan."
In 1985, citing its nuclear-free policy, New Zealand denied port access to the American destroyer Buchanan because the Navy would neither confirm nor deny that the ship was armed with nuclear weapons.
The United States has suspended its security obligations to New Zealand under what was known as the ANZUS treaty (Australia, New Zealand, United States) until U.S. Navy ships are readmitted to New Zealand ports, and it ended most bilateral activities.
The ship-porting standoff over New Zealand's nuclear posture, which U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill called "a bit of a relic" in 2006, remains in effect.
Lt. Kerry Driver, a New Zealand Defence Force spokesman for RIMPAC, said the controversy hasn't affected New Zealand forces here for the exercise. "Morale is great. Everyone's excited to be in Hawaii," he said.
Opinions varied as what should be done about the two countries' mutual port ban.
Karen Simms, 50, who was visiting from the Chicago area and was at Aloha Tower Marketplace on Tuesday, said the United States should have "total honesty" about declaring whether it does or doesn't have nuclear weapons aboard its ships to solve the New Zealand porting issue.
"As the leader of the modern world, if we want to set the example and expect other countries to work with us and cooperate with us, then we should exemplify that ourselves (by declaring whether nuclear weapons are aboard)," she said.
But her father, 81-year-old Ed Brusic, disagreed.
"I don't think we should tell people if there are nuclear weapons on board. Let them be afraid of us," he said. "Do you think Russia or China is going to tell you if there are nuclear weapons on board? No way."
Alan Kumalae, 60, helping to set up booths for Metro New Hope church's Fourth of July events at Aloha Tower, said, "To me, New Zealand is our ally in current times, and we should treat them as such.
"Treat them how we treat everyone else (by allowing them in Pearl Harbor)," he said. "Sometimes we've got too much politics involved and we forget about being cordial."