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Deadline nears for saving US defense alliance with N. Zealand

The United States and New Zealand have little time left to resolve their differences before their 35-year defense alliance collapses. With an August deadline for settling the dispute, both countries appear deadlocked over the issue of New Zealand barring visits by nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships.

At stake: the future of ANZUS, the 1951 defense treaty among the US, New Zealand, and Australia -- which have been allies in both world wars.

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US Ambassador to New Zealand Paul Cleveland says that the US is likely to withdraw its ANZUS security commitment to New Zealand if New Zealand passes legislation that would ban all visits by nuclear-powered or nuclear-armored ships.

In August, US and Australian officials plan to meet in San Francisco -- without New Zealand -- for the annual ANZUS talks.

However, US officials reportedly have said that since New Zealand does not face a foreseeable military threat that would require US assistance, the initial effect of such a move would be largely psychological.

The dispute began early last year, when Prime Minister David Lange did not allow a US Navy ship to make a port call because Washington would not guarantee that it was nuclear free. Mr. Lange was elected to the premiership in a landslide in July 1984 after campaigning heavily on antinuclear policies.

The Reagan administration, maintaining a longstanding policy of neither confirming nor denying whether vessels are nuclear-armed at a given time, said ship visits were essential to the alliance. In protest, it stopped joint military exercises and the supply of intelligence to New Zealand.

A flurry of public statements in recent weeks has broken six months of ``quiet diplomacy'' during which officials on both sides of the Pacific tried to iron out problems. The statements have highlighted a growing sense of urgency.

Lange is adamant that his policies, which he insists are antinuclear -- not anti-American or anti-ANZUS -- will be enacted into law.

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The US refuses to conform to the law because that would force it to break its ``neither confirm nor deny'' policy for the first time in the history of its alliances. The US also insists that freedom for US Navy ships to visit New Zealand is essential to the ANZUS alliance.

However, some hopes of a settlement were raised here this week. The US deputy assistant secretary of state for Asian and Pacific Affairs, James Lilley, said in a radio interview from Washington that New Zealand was entitled to its point of view. He also expressed hope that a solution could be found enabling New Zealand to attend the San Francisco meeting in August.

New Zealand officials saw it as the first hint of a US willingness to accommodate Wellington's policy. Washington's attitude has always been seen here as insisting that New Zealand must change its stance while the US would not.

But US officials here say there has been no change in the US position. New Zealand sources say that in that case, Mr. Lilley's comments have just confused the issue. These sources also say that the Reagan administration is sending conflicting signals.

Lange says the ANZUS treaty cannot be scrapped and under its provisions New Zealand remains a member until it withdraws, which it will not do.

Australia, the third member of ANZUS, has close relations with New Zealand. It wants the treaty to remain in place.

The US and Australia have agreed to retain their mutual defense agreement, even if the US moves to abandon its security commitment with New Zealand. Australia says that this formula would maintain the ANZUS framework and would allow New Zealand to rejoin it.

Regardless of the outcome of the ANZUS row, New Zealand and Australia have reaffirmed their commitment to continuing close defense cooperation. Both countries acknowledge their mutual interest in each other's security.

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