AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Friday that New Zealand naval ships would be allowed to dock at U.S. bases, lifting a 26-year-old ban.
The decision, announced by Panetta at a news conference, eases the long-running dispute between the two countries over New Zealand's refusal to allow U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons or using nuclear power into its ports.
The U.S. move is an overture to New Zealand at a time when the Pentagon is rebuilding military relations in the region, in part to counter China's growing clout in the South Pacific.
But there are few signs that New Zealand will reciprocate by easing its anti-nuclear law to allow a return of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships to its ports.
"While we acknowledge that our countries continue to have differences of opinion in some limited areas ... we are embarking on a new course that will not let these differences stand in the way of greater engagement on security issues," Panetta said.
Asked whether the decision to give New Zealand access to American bases could lead to a resumption of U.S. Navy ship calls in New Zealand, Panetta said, "Let's see where it takes us."
A senior U.S. official said officials from the two countries have held informal discussions on whether New Zealand might be open to revising its anti-nuclear law as a step toward resuming U.S. ship visits. But the law remains highly popular in New Zealand, making changes any time soon unlikely.
Jonathan Coleman, New Zealand's defense minister, said at the news conference that "New Zealand has made it very clear that the policy remains unchanged and will remain unchanged."
The restriction on New Zealand ships docking at U.S. facilities was put in place in 1986 after Washington pulled out of a mutual defense pact with New Zealand in response to its anti-nuclear law.
As recently as July, a New Zealand ship taking part in a U.S. naval exercise was forced to dock at the commercial side of Hawaii's Pearl Harbor, rather than the military base.
Under the new policy, New Zealand ship visits will have to be approved on a case-by-case basis. A restriction on talks between defense officials was also lifted, Panetta said.
New Zealand, which has a tiny military, wants to build up its amphibious operations capability, in part to make it better able to respond to humanitarian disasters and peacekeeping in the South Pacific. The Pentagon is eager to help, a senior U.S. official said.
This year, U.S. Marines, who specialize in amphibious operations, visited New Zealand for the first time in at least 25 years to mark the anniversary of Marines deploying there during World War II.
U.S. officials said Panetta did not discuss easing the long-standing policy that bars American Navy and Coast Guard ships from entering New Zealand ports or territorial waters.
More than a decade ago, the Pentagon said U.S. Navy ships generally do not carry nuclear weapons. But the Pentagon still refuses to say whether specific Navy warships are carrying nuclear weapons, and it will not commit to sending to New Zealand only nonnuclear vessels, which would be allowed under the country's anti-nuclear law.
"The United States is firmly committed to its one-fleet policy," a senior Defense official told reporters traveling with Panetta, referring to the refusal to send nonnuclear ships to New Zealand.
After New Zealand turned away a U.S. destroyer in 1985 and later passed its anti-nuclear law, the U.S. suspended a defense treaty and most military contacts.
The relationship between the two countries has improved significantly since New Zealand sent troops to Afghanistan in 2003, and particularly since the center-right National Party, which is seen as U.S.-friendly, came to power in 2008.
New Zealand sent more than 100 troops to Afghanistan, where New Zealand runs a provincial reconstruction team. Ten New Zealand soldiers have died in Afghanistan, including five last month in two attacks.
Panetta's two-day stopover was the first visit to New Zealand by a U.S. Defense secretary since Caspar Weinberger in 1982 and is part of a wide-ranging administration effort to rebuild military ties in Asia and around the Pacific as a decade of war in the Middle East and South Asia winds down.
In the South Pacific, the U.S. is concerned about China extending its economic reach to the small island chains and atolls of the region -- a major impetus behind Washington's goal of improving relations across the region. New Zealand has a free-trade agreement with China and growing economic ties.
Panetta's visit comes less than a month after Secretary of State Hillary Rodhan Clinton went to the Cook Islands for a diplomatic forum, and it follows the June signing of the Washington Declaration between the U.S. and New Zealand calling for closer military cooperation.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, center, reviews an honor guard in Auckland, New Zealand, on Sept. 21, 2012. Panetta become the first Pentagon chief to visit the South Pacific nation in 30 years. Credit: Larry Downing / Associated Press