Samantha Hayes: US Navy visit to NZ will happen

(Reuters)
(Reuters)

I shook the hand of Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery and introduced myself, adding as you do that I was from New Zealand. "I love it down there, " he said, "I just can't bring any ships. "

We laughed, but he had unwittingly already brokered the topic I planned to grill him on.

As the Director of Operations at the massive Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, Rear Admiral Montgomery oversees nearly 400,000 military personnel. His base is accountable for 52 percent of the globe, the Asia Pacific region, or as he describes it everything from Hollywood to Bollywood.

He's a confident man, impressive to listen to with an equally impressive CV commanding a Destroyer and aircraft carrier fleet.

In a rare on-the-record briefing I put the question to him, were relations between the US and NZ good enough for him to send a ship to the Navy's 75th anniversary celebrations later this year? Had a decision been made? He said "a decision has definitely not been made although it’s under review".

So it wasn't entirely off the cards. Potentially the US would break the stalemate. But there is a lot of bad blood to overcome. The last US navy ship to visit New Zealand was in 1984.

New Zealand's anti-nuclear legislation prevented further visits unless the US declared whether the vessel was nuclear-powered or carried nuclear weapons. They wouldn't and so for decades they've stayed away. It caused a vast rift in NZ-US relations, but Rear Admiral Montgomery says the relationship is back on track.

"The relations between our militaries are very strong and they're not framed on a disagreement on ship visits. Our contributions, our cooperation together in Central Command, in combat has been exceptional over the last two decades. Our work together to build relationships within Oceania along with Australia has been significant."

I nudged the question forward again, it was getting slightly awkward: "There are strong rumours you're sending a non-nuclear ship. "

And then he did something interesting -- he bought some time.

"I just decided to send a ship to Manilla for something six days from now. Now I'm not saying we're going to wait till six days beforehand. Ship visit decision-making is something you can't make a decision two months ahead or three months ahead -- as I remember this event's in November.

"Would you like to see one sent?"

He paused, and said: "Yeah, I would like to see that we have completely normal relations with New Zealand. "

And if you had seen the smile on his face and the glint in his eye when he said those words, like me, you would think a visit was a sure bet.

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