Last week's announcement by US Vice President Joe Biden that Washington has accepted an invitation to send a ship to New Zealand for the navy's 75th anniversary fleet review in November was widely heralded as the end of a thirty-year standoff between the two countries over nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed vessels. 

But although the announcement generated headlines in the Wall Street Journal and Time, it didn't come as much of a surprise to most New Zealanders. The strong possibility of a US Navy visit has been publicly floated since at least last November. In fact, New Zealanders would probably have been more surprised if the US had said 'no'. A poll conducted in May showed that 75% of Kiwis favour a ship visit, including two-thirds of those who identified themselves as supporting opposition parties.

In part there has been little fuss because a ship visit won't represent a dramatic shift in ties with Washington. The thaw in NZ-US relations actually began during the second term of the George W Bush administration, when both governments began to look for opportunities to work around the 'rock in the road'. A visit by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010 saw the signing of the Wellington Declaration, with stepped up cooperation in the South Pacific on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and the resumption of regular high-level dialogues. In 2012 the defence relationship grew closer still with the Washington Declaration, which committed both to cooperation on developing 'deployable capabilities' in the wider Asia Pacific. 

Within this political framework, the two militaries have rapidly developed deep practical links. A busy exercise program now exists, with Marines and US Army training in New Zealand since 2012. Kiwis are regulars in the annual Pacific Partnership humanitarian missions and the New Zealand Defence Force has been part of RIMPAC military exercises since 2012. Apart from a minor kerfuffle when the frigate Te Kaha was assigned a berth in Honolulu's civilian port, the NZ Navy has been given a warm welcome along with everyone else at Pearl Harbor. And after a decade-long presence in Afghanistan, New Zealand troops are now training the Iraqi military as part of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS.

Against this backdrop of intense military cooperation, the ship visit is an important symbol, but hardly a dramatic break with the past. But where to from here? What might the post-post-ANZUS era look like?

First, it would be a mistake to see the resumption of ship visits as a logical step towards the inevitable resuscitation of the ANZUS alliance. When the Washington Declaration was signed in 2012, Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman was quick to make clear 'it wasn't ANZUS in drag'. Indeed, when the 2016 Australian Defence White Paper described Australia and New Zealand as 'close partners and ANZUS allies' Prime Minister John Key rejected the term, saying it was more accurate to describe it as an 'ANZAC' relationship and insisting (erroneously) 'we suspended ANZUS and have no intention of rejoining'. And although New Zealand's recent Defence White Paper describes the relationship with Washington as 'one of the country's closest', the word 'ANZUS' does not appear once.

Second, New Zealand's strategic environment in 2016 looks very different to 1985. China is now the country's largest export market and was described in the recent White Paper as an 'important strategic partner'. In 2015, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee announced the conclusion of a five-year engagement plan with the People's Liberation Army. Despite the much closer defence relationship with Washington, New Zealand has walked a careful line when it comes to key regional issues like territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Wellington might share American and Australian concerns about China's growing assertiveness, but it has chosen to express its views less publicly and in rather different language. A recent Global Times story claimed that two weeks after the Permanent Court of Arbitration decision, no countries outside the region have supported it except Australia, the US and Japan. New Zealand's absence from the list probably won't have worried anyone in the Key Government. Certainly the hope that New Zealand might someday soon be participating in US Freedom of Navigation Operations seems misplaced.

Finally, the much warmer defence relationship of the last six years has occurred in the context of the US rebalance to Asia and has been helped by President Obama's enormous personal popularity (in fact, Vice President Biden's visit disappointed some New Zealanders, as it confirmed Obama himself wouldn't be coming before his term ends). But a central part of the rebalance and a crucial goal for the Key Government is passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With both presidential candidates opposed to TPP and its prospects fading by the day, even a win by Clinton might see questions again asked about America's commitment to the region. And if Trump is the next Oval Office inhabitant, then New Zealanders will look at a defence relationship with Washington very differently. Rather than symbolising the start of a new era of military cooperation, it's possible a ship visit in November could yet represent a fleeting high point, with more uncertain times ahead.

Photo: Flickr/Ash Carter