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The guided-missile destroyer USS Howard, left, is replenished by the New Zealand oiler HMNZS Aotearoa on Nov. 23, 2021.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Howard, left, is replenished by the New Zealand oiler HMNZS Aotearoa on Nov. 23, 2021. (Justin Asuncion/US Navy)

A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer arrived Friday in Wellington, New Zealand, a rare visit by an American warship to the nuclear-free nation that has closed its borders to most of the world during the coronavirus pandemic.

A Navy statement described the visit by the USS Howard as an indication of the depth of the relationship between New Zealand and the U.S. The Navy embargoed its statement until the Howard, an Arleigh-Burke-class destroyer based at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, had arrived Down Under.

“The U.S. Navy along with its network of alliances and partners plays a key role in the security of global trade routes and freedom of navigation and maintaining global access for our Navy is central to that role,” Task Force 71, Destroyer Squadron 15, said in the statement.

New Zealand froze most port calls by U.S. Navy ships in 1985. The U.S. the following year suspended its ANZUS treaty obligations to New Zealand, which had declared itself nuclear-free.

The declaration meant no port-calls for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers or submarines or warships that might be carrying nuclear weapons.

In September, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said nuclear-powered submarines that Australia will acquire under AUKUS, the new defense pact between Australia the United Kingdom and the U.S., won’t be welcome in her country’s waters.

The Howard’s visit is the first by a U.S. warship to the country since the guided-missile destroyer USS Sampson headed south in 2016. During that trip the Sampson helped New Zealand authorities respond to a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that struck the country’s South Island.

The Howard is in New Zealand for a standard port visit and to consult on cooperative exercises, according to the Navy’s statement.

Sailors have taken measures to mitigate and operate amid the coronavirus epidemic and will be granted liberty in Wellington, the statement said.

The U.S. sailors are visiting the South Pacific nation before many of its own citizens, who have been left stranded overseas by pandemic border restrictions that are scheduled to end early next year. 

“I’m excited to be immersed in and experience a different culture as well as explore this beautiful country,” one of the Howard’s crew, Ensign Kathryn Cole, said Thursday in an email to Stars and Stripes.

On its way to Wellington the Howard was replenished at sea by the Royal New Zealand Navy’s HMNZS Aotearoa replenishment oiler, Cmdr. Travis Montplaisir, the Howard’s commander, said Thursday in an email to Stars and Stripes.

“We’re sharper and more focused thanks to events like this that bring us in close cooperation with New Zealand, allowing for greater collective capability across a variety of maritime operations,” he said.

The Howard’s crew is excited to visit New Zealand and proud to represent the U.S. Navy as they build their relationship and deepen friendship in the country, Montplaisir said.

The Howard will take part in a range of activities with the New Zealand Defence force, including training, the statement said.

“As the Royal New Zealand Navy celebrates their 80th anniversary this year, we’re pleased to help them mark the occasion and look forward to a successful visit that ensures continued opportunities for cooperation,” Montplaisir said.

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