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US Defense Secretary visits New Zealand

Leon Panetta is the first US Defense secretary to visit New Zealand in 30 years.

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US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is welcomed to Auckland, New Zealand, on Sept. 21, 2012, by New Zealand's Minister of Defense Jonathan Coleman (C) and US Ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner (L). (LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images)

Pentagon Chief Leon Panetta arrived at the final stop on his Asia-Pacific tour today: New Zealand, a country no US Defense Secretary has visited in 30 years, according to the Associated Press.

The US/New Zealand relationship ran aground 25 years ago when NZ legislators banned nuclear weapons in the South Pacific nation and its waters, including US warships from its ports, the AP reported. The US military and US Coast Guard do not allow New Zealand ships in their ports and facilities.

According to the AP:

The relationship between the two countries has improved significantly since New Zealand first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2003, and particularly since the center-right National Party, which is seen as US-friendly, came to power in 2008.

In July, the US and New Zealand signed the Washington Declaration, agreeing to greater military co-operation in the Asia Pacific region, the New Zealand Herald reported.

Panetta plans to use this visit to discuss ways to deepen the two countries’ defense cooperation in the west Pacific, the Guardian reported. He’ll meet with New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman, Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully and Prime Minister John Key, the AP reported.

New Zealand's citizens are not necessarily glad Panetta’s visiting, according to the Guardian. Some worry that New Zealand could be called upon to back up the US in a Sino-American spat over Taiwan, North Korea or a disputed Japanese island, the Guardian reported.

More from GlobalPost: Leon Panetta expresses concern over China-Japan islands dispute

Coleman said New Zealand is determined to remain on friendly terms with China even as it increases military cooperation with the US, the New Zealand Herald reported.

"The US have indicated that they completely understand that we have a very good relationship with China, that it is economically very important to us, but at the same time we are engaged in a range of things with the US,” Coleman said, according to the New Zealand Herald. “So it's not one or the other. It's not a matter of having to make a choice, and we feel we can manage our relationship with both of those countries in a way that doesn't offend either of them."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/120920/us-defense-secretary-visits-new-zealand