HONOLULU — The New Zealand Defence Force, marking its first participation in Rim of the Pacific naval exercises in 28 years, has sent a frigate, a tanker and other war-fighting elements to Honolulu for the world's largest international naval exercises.
"They are certainly integrated into all the events. They are hosting a reception — just like many of the other ships are," said RIMPAC spokesman U.S. Navy Cmdr. Charlie Brown.
Just not in Pearl Harbor, where the rest of the 42 participating surface ships from 11 nations will be.
Altogether, 22 nations, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel are participating in the largest RIMPAC ever, running through July and into early August.
But a nearly three-decade quarrel over New Zealand's anti-nuclear posture still prevents the Kiwi frigate Te Kaha and tanker Endeavour from stopping in Pearl Harbor, just as U.S. Navy ships are not allowed to make port calls in New Zealand.
Instead, the two gray warships — the 387-foot Te Kaha, a 5-inch turret gun pointing off its bow, and the 452-foot Endeavour — are snuggled up side by side next to touristy Aloha Tower behind some flowering plumeria trees.
"Closer to town. We're not complaining," said one of the New Zealand sailors, adding, "This is the biggest thing we've done in a long time."
Even former Cold War foe the Russians, participating in RIMPAC for the first time, will be allowed to berth in Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy said.
Military-to-military relations between the United States and New Zealand have been on the upswing since at least 2003, and in 2010, a milestone "strategic partnership" agreement, the Wellington Declaration, was reached.
The two countries on June 19 signed what's known as the Washington Declaration at the Pentagon expanding the defense relationship. Changing power dynamics with China exerting its influence in the region have propelled the defense relationship forward.
Joint training has increased, with 75 U.S. Marines and soldiers taking part in the exercise Alam Halfa with 1,500 New Zealand troops in that country in April, and New Zealand engineers recently visiting Camp Pendleton, Calif.
But 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.
"The U.S. is thankful for the long-standing partnership with New Zealand and though the recent signing of the Washington Declaration is a great sign of our cooperation, we do not agree on everything," said Army Maj. Cathy Wilkinson, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
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 nuclear armed.
The United States said it was suspending its security obligations to New Zealand under what was known as the ANZUS treaty (Australia, New Zealand, United States) until U.S. Navy ships were readmitted to Kiwi ports, and it ended most bilateral activities.
Wilkinson said that while the nuclear-free policy remains, the 2010 Wellington Declaration "established a new framework for an expanded relationship and nearly normalized the relationship."
"We continue to partner within existing limitations, which include not allowing New Zealand Navy ships to visit U.S. military ports," she said.
John Pike, director of Virginia-based think tank GlobalSecurity.org, said the new defense relationship with New Zealand "is a considerable improvement over what we had when all of this nuclear allergy stuff started a quarter of a century ago."
"We had been in the Great War with the Kiwis and we had licked the Japanese with the Kiwis and we had been together against the Soviets with the Kiwis — until this whole nuclear thing came up," Pike said.
The fact that the U.S. Navy will neither confirm nor deny whether its ships have nuclear weapons aboard "is the thing that they (New Zealand) can't cope with," Pike said. "The reality, of course, is that occasionally, aircraft carriers have (nuclear) gravity bombs on them, but otherwise, the senior Bush administration took all the nuclear weapons out of the surface Navy 20 years ago."
New Zealand P-3 aircraft and an infantry unit will be housed at the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay, and a mine countermeasure team will be at Pearl Harbor.
The two New Zealand warships, which are expected to remain at Aloha Tower until July 11, will get some company from the Hawaii-based frigate USS Crommelin, the "host ship" for the New Zealanders, so "the crews can join together in opportunities to enjoy Hawaii and build friendships and partnerships," the Navy said.