US seeks to expand ties with New Zealand amid China worries

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The commander of the United States military in the Pacific said Monday he wants to expand and strengthen its ties with New Zealand.

The visit to Wellington by Adm. John Aquilino, head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, comes as the U.S. is looking to increase its presence in the region amid deep concerns over China’s growing ambitions in the Pacific.

They include most recently the Solomon Islands, where the U.S. and several Pacific nations expressed deep concern about a security pact the Solomons signed with China in April, which many fear could result in a military buildup in the region.

Aquilino was greeted with a traditional Māori welcome ceremony and laid a wreath at the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park. He spoke briefly to media ahead of meetings with top New Zealand defense force and government officials.

“Our partnership runs very deep,” Aquilino said. “We are doing many things together to continue to ensure peace and prosperity for both of our nations and for all the nations in the region.”

Aquilino said he wanted to identify new areas where the U.S. could work with New Zealand. He said the leadership of Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific was “critically important.”

“The one thing you will never hear out of me is big or small. This is a partnership,” Aquilino said. “All nations deliver those things that they can deliver.”

He said the U.S. understood the security implications of climate change in Pacific island nations, including for food security and water security, and the importance for island nations to be able to fish in exclusive zones.

“The United States has been a Pacific nation our entire life. We will continue to operate in the Pacific no matter what else you might hear,” Aquilino said.

Air Marshal Kevin Short, chief of New Zealand’s defense force, said the relationship with the U.S. had been strong for decades, and it regularly interacts with U.S. forces so they can both operate better in the region.

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