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US Defence Secretary visiting New Zealand

Thursday 20 Sep 2012 5:36 p.m.

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By Patrick Gower

The United States Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, arrives in New Zealand tomorrow, the first visit by someone in that position for 30 years.

Mr Panetta is an important figure in the US government. He is the former director of the CIA and oversaw the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.

His job is to exercise "authority, direction and control" over the entire US military - the army, navy, and air force.

Prime Minister John Key says the visit is a sign of a strengthening relationship with the US.

“It's very symbolic that he's here.”

The last visit was before the bust-up over the nuclear free legislation.

Mr Key says the talks with Mr Panetta will not extend to any kind of warship visit as neither side wants to discuss that.

“My understanding is that there's no real change in the position - we certainly wouldn't change our legislation,” he says.

But there could be a middle ground, as Mr Key says he would welcome a visit by the US Coast Guard.

“If it did happen that would be a nice thing, but again it would be largely about symbolism.”

Mr Panetta has just been in China, and his visit there was symbolic too.

China's leader-in-waiting, Vice-President Xi Jinping, re-appeared for his first talks with a foreign official since vanishing from the public eye nearly two weeks ago.

The relationship between the US and China is tense - there's a power struggle going on that reaches out here to the Pacific. And the American concern about China's rise is one of the reasons they have warmed to us.

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