Kiwis to Yanks: Welcome Back!

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TOKYO – For the first time in almost three decades, Americans are training for combat in New Zealand – and even the Kiwis are happy about it.

U.S. Marines and soldiers began a joint-training exercise Thursday with the New Zealand Army in the rugged mountains of the North Island. The 10-day exercise is the first combat-related training mission between U.S. and New Zealand forces since a split in the ANZUS alliance in 1984. And it represents another step in the fast-growing net of U.S. military bases and security arrangements throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

“We have not had this level of military cooperation with the United States, especially on New Zealand soil, for more than a generation, so it is quite a significant step forward,” says Robert Ayson, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, in Wellington.

The U.S. suspended joint military training with New Zealand in 1984 after the government banned port visits by nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered U.S. warships. A policy of “friends, but not allies” continued until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully signed a new “strategic partnership” agreement in November 2010.

About 75 U.S. Marines and Army soldiers are joining some 1,500 New Zealand troops in the Alam Halfa exercise, which will include live-fire training. Other training missions since 2010 have been limited to humanitarian or non-lethal operations.

U.S. forces and defense planners have been busy elsewhere in the region, as well.

Marines began moving into new bases in Australia earlier this month, and this week will finish up a major amphibious warfare exercise in the Philippines. An interim realignment plan is expected to be released by this weekend that will shift some 9,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, Australia, Hawaii and other locations in the Pacific. And U.S. and Japanese planners are in the Marianna Islands this week scouting locations for potential joint training facilities — including live-fire ranges — for U.S. and Japanese air, ground and naval forces.

The moves are designed largely to counter the growing capability and assertiveness of China’s military.

Ayson says there is even a growing wariness toward China in New Zealand, which was the first OECD country to sign a free trade agreement with China, in 2008. China is now New Zealand’s second-largest trading partner.

“The free trade agreement with China is seen as one of the great success stories in recent New Zealand diplomacy and we would not give that up under almost any circumstances,” says Ayson. “But New Zealanders are becoming aware that as China grows economically it will have more of a political and strategic role in the region, and there are going to be some differences of opinion. So it makes sense to have a strong relationship with the U.S. and China and Australia and perhaps increasingly with India and others to try to maintain that sense of balance.”