By David Alexander
AUCKLAND (Reuters) - The United States has lifted a ban on visits by New Zealand warships to U.S. defense and coast guard bases around the world, further thawing relations after a 26-year stand-off on nuclear issues.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made the announcement during a visit to New Zealand on Friday. He said Washington would lift restrictions on military exercises and facilitate more talks with New Zealand even though Wellington maintains its long-held nuclear-free stance.
For the first time since the suspension of the ANZUS Treaty in 1986, Washington will allow individual visits by Royal New Zealand Navy ships to U.S. Department of Defense or Coast Guard facilities in the United States and around the world, Panetta said in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city.
"These changes make it easier for our militaries to engage in discussions on security issues and to hold cooperative engagements that increase our capacity to tackle common challenges," he said.
Panetta said Washington and Wellington would work together despite lingering "differences of opinion in some limited areas".
The visit by Panetta, the first by a Pentagon chief in 30 years, signals a new era of U.S.-New Zealand defense links breached in the mid-1980s, when Wellington declared itself nuclear-free and barred its ports to nuclear warships.
While both Washington and Wellington acknowledged the improvement in relations and defense ties, New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman said New Zealand had an independent foreign policy and that its anti-nuclear ban was not negotiable.
"I don't think that we should get too hung up about trying to turn the clock back to pre-1986 because the reality is that the relationship is very, very good," Coleman said at a news conference following their meeting.
New Zealand has a small contingent of troops fighting with U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
During his visit Panetta is also meeting with 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.
In July, the United States and New Zealand agreed to hold regular high-level talks and to cooperate on maritime security, counter-terrorism, and peacekeeping operations.
U.S. Marines trained in New Zealand earlier this year, and New Zealand's navy took part in the multi-nation Rimpac maritime exercise ships in July.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Paul Tait)