A wave of national outrage and general incomprehension followed the apparent denial of entry of HMNZS Te Kaha (and the tanker Endeavour) into Pearl Harbour after its participation in this year’s Rimpac naval exercise in the waters around Hawaii. After all our efforts over the years to improve relations with the United States (including the recent signing of the Washington Declaration), we were ‘snubbed’ and sent round the corner to a commercial harbour. This may have seemed petty but we really do need to remember how all this began and what the law still is regarding visits to our ports by US ships. If an American naval ship turned up here, are we sure it would not be subjected to protest (which certainly didn’t happen to our ships), or even turned away (and not simply to a harbour next door)?
The 1984 Labour Government was elected on a pledge to pass a law to make New Zealand ‘nuclear free’. This entailed a ban on nuclear armed and nuclear powered ships and, since the most likely party to turn up with either of these things was the United States, this pledge raised questions about future relations with that country, and, particularly, about the future of our principal security alliance: the ANZUS Pact. Then Prime Minister, David Lange, set out to ‘test the waters’ by sending his Chief of Defence Force, Ewan Jamieson, to arrange with the American authorities for a suitable US vessel to visit in 1985. The parties agreed on the USS Buchanan. It was going to be a politically difficult decision.
The US Embassy lodged a formal request for the visit on 17 January. Prime Minister Lange told no one and two days later left to spend a little time in the Tokelau Islands, where he would be totally incommunicado, leaving his deputy, Geoffrey Palmer, to respond to the request. According to Palmer’s biographer (Raymond Richards, Palmer: The Parliamentary Years), acting-Prime Minister, Palmer, ‘knew that accepting the Buchanan without certainty (my emphasis) that it was not nuclear-armed would split the Labour Party’. He recommended to Cabinet that the request for a visit should be denied and Prime Minister Lange arrived back from Tokelau just in time to accept this. The decision left the Americans with an enormous and understandable sense of resentment. They had cooperated with a process which was intended to serve the political and security interests of both parties, but in the end had found that the New Zealand Government had capitulated to anti-American/anti-nuclear activists.
But this is only a part of the present problem. Two years later, the Lange Labour Government passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone and Arms Control Act. Amongst other things, this prohibited the presence of nuclear weapons on the land, or internal waters, of New Zealand. Applying the ‘Palmer test’, which, as noted, required certainty, any future visit by an American naval vessel would still be vulnerable to ideologically-motivated rejection. This is not a matter of US unwillingness to ‘confirm or deny’, which in any case is an unreasonable requirement to put on ‘friendly’ forces. Why would any military organisation allow itself to be put in the situation that it needs to make comment on its capabilities and the disposition of its forces? In relation to the ‘Palmer-test’, it gives every opportunity for those intent on causing a breach in relations to claim that they are ‘uncertain’, because they might be being deceived. Ultimately, if we are talking of allies or friends, we are talking about trust.
It is interesting to note that the 1987 Act provides a different test from that used in 1985. In this case, the Prime Minister must be ‘satisfied’ that nuclear weapons were not being carried. In the Buchanan case that would have been easy, and, indeed, Air Marshall Jamieson gave advice about the likelihood that the ship was carrying nuclear weapons that could have been the basis of such a decision. This, of course, was the reason why the Buchanan was chosen in the first place. However, for the future, the provisions of the 1987 Act still provide the risk of refusal. As the well-known adage has it, ‘once-bitten, twice-shy’. Why would the United States expose itself to even the smallest risk of repetition?
There is another problem that arises from the 1987 law and that is the Section 11 ban on nuclear-propelled ships. To be sure, only a proportion of American naval vessels are nuclear propelled but we should understand that the US only has one navy and we seem very keen to cooperate with it on what are very obvious security grounds. So why would we discriminate against some of its vessels, when we have the findings of our own 1992 Special Committee on the safety of nuclear powered ships (the Somers Committee), that such ships ‘present no danger’ (‘cannot give rise to any rational apprehension’)?
The issue is simple. If we want to normalise our defence relations with the United States we need to amend, if not repeal the 1987 Act. Little would be lost to do the latter. The declaration that New Zealand is ‘nuclear free’ is vacuous gesture politics. We are not nuclear free. We have nuclear material in the ground, we use radioactive isotopes in our industry and schools, and Australian ‘yellow-cake’ passes through our ports. The Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control, established by the Act, has long since ceased to function. It would be no loss. Equally, the ban on nuclear propelled ships is absurd, considering what our own inquiry found.
That just leaves the matter of nuclear weapons. If we want to remove a clear impediment to our evolving relationship with the United States, we need also to remove the statutory reference to this issue. That is the way to turn a fresh page in what is a crucial security relationship, and get into the right harbour!