Auckland (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in New Zealand on Friday for talks on military cooperation between the two nations, the first Pentagon chief to visit in 30 years since before Wellington barred its ports to nuclear warships.
Panetta plans to hold talks with Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman and other senior leaders to explore deeper U.S. military engagement with New Zealand as the United States rebalances its forces to the Asia-Pacific as part of a new military strategy.
Coleman said the visit underlined the improvement in relations and defense ties, but the country's anti-nuclear ban was not negotiable.
"We've got an independent foreign policy, but we're not changing our stance on nuclear ships, and the U.S. is very comfortable with that," Coleman told TV3 channel.
"We're talking about what we've got in common."
Panetta will also pay tribute to New Zealand's military for its efforts in Afghanistan, where it has about 180 troops. New Zealand has lost 10 troops in the conflict, including its first female combat casualty. Five New Zealanders were killed in August alone in two separate incidents.
Although U.S. warships still do not visit New Zealand's ports, and New Zealand's warships are barred from U.S. military ports, military relations between the two sides are improving.
"Over the last couple of years we've seen a dramatic uptick in U.S.-New Zealand relations with the signing of the Washington and Wellington declarations in 2010 and 2012," a senior U.S. defense official said.
The official said the purpose of the visit was to "engage in a dialogue with Wellington on where they see themselves in the (U.S.) rebalance, where we can work part and parcel of this overall strategy."
U.S. Marines trained in New Zealand in April and New Zealand's navy took part in the multi-nation Rimpac maritime exercise ships in July.
(Additional reporting Gyles Beckford in Wellington)