Kiwis Ask: Hey, Where Is Everybody?

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US Navy

Guided-missile frigate USS Crommelin at Honolulu Harbor, where two New Zealand warships are berthed for the RIMPAC 2012 exercise; at rear is Aloha Tower.

TOKYO – In a gesture of friendship and goodwill toward an obscure former ally, warships from New Zealand have been granted special, private berthing privileges for a major naval exercise now underway in Hawaii. And wouldn’t you know it: they’re complaining. It seems that while ships from a dozen friendly countries are berthed at crowded, attack-prone Pearl Harbor, two New Zealand warships have been assigned exclusive berthing spots at Honolulu’s lovely civilian harbor, several miles away. All by themselves.

This is the first time that New Zealand forces have been invited to take part in the biennial RIMPAC exercises since New Zealand banned U.S. Navy ships from making port calls there in the 1980s.  U.S. warships are still not welcome. Sensitive Kiwis detect a deliberate snub in the separate berthing arrangements in Hawaii.

“Petty, petulant and pathetic,” says the New Zealand Herald. “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?”

A quarter of poll respondents said New Zealand should pull out of the exercise because of the “petty snub.”

Well, sure, but it could be worse. The Kiwis’ temporary home is at the foot of historic Aloha Tower, a short walk from shopping, restaurants, bars and the kind of nighttime, personal-service entertainment long favored by seagoing personnel. The beaches and discos of Waikiki are a quick bus ride away.

Pearl Harbor, on the other hand, is in a different realm. It’s surrounded by guards and barbed wire. Since there are not enough piers to go around, many visiting vessels will tie up side-by-side; no privacy, lots of gangplanks. Water-buses and shuttles are needed to navigate the sprawling facility  (Hey, is that a golf course?), and it takes an hour or more to fight traffic to reach town.

Recall, too, that it was only 70 years ago that hundreds of warplanes attacked the base on a peaceful Sunday morning. Three Japanese warships are among Pearl’s current visitors. I’m just saying.

But Rob Ayson, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, in Wellington, says it’s all much ado about nothing.

“Everyone’s missing the big story, which is that New Zealanders are participating in this exercise for the first time in a generation,” says Ayson. “You can look at the limitations that still exist on New Zealand-U.S. port access, or you can say, ‘They’re finding a way to cooperate more closely.’”

The relationship soured in 1984 when New Zealand banned port visits by nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered U.S. warships.  Washington cancelled all joint training programs, and stopped inviting the Kiwis to the RIMPAC exercises, which are the world’s largest naval war games — and a nice place to visit, too. Twenty-two countries, 46 ships and submarines, 200 aircraft and 25,000 troops are taking part this year’s exercise; it began June 29 and runs through early August.

Still, New Zealand troops were among the first to arrive in Afghanistan to back up U.S. troops after 9/11, and the two countries signed a “strategic partnership” agreement in 2010 that signaled a thaw in relations.

U.S. Marines and Army soldiers took part in a training exercise in New Zealand in April, and last month Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and New Zealand counterpart Jonathan Coleman signed an agreement deepening military-to-military ties.

Coleman said this week that he knew in advance about the berthing arrangements, and isn’t worried about it. But it seems to have torqued off at least few pundits and political leaders in Wellington.

“We’re still being given the cold shoulder,” said one TV commentator.

In fact, the two New Zealand warships, HMNZS Endeavor and HMNZS Te Kaha, aren’t completely alone: The USS Crommelin, a guided-missile frigate, is tied up alongside to keep them company. Everyone else is at Pearl until the bulk of deep-water exercises start next week.

Charlie Brown, RIMPAC spokesman, says the Navy “worked closely with the New Zealand navy to ensure their logistic requirements are being met… and the feedback from them so far is they are very satisfied with these arrangements.”

Ayson says that despite the berthing flap, relations between the two countries remain solid. But he says the Kiwis’ location could pose a problem for other RIMPAC participants when they venture downtown.

“By the time the everyone else gets there,” says Ayson, “the New Zealanders will have drunk all the beer.”