Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday that a lingering nuclear dispute between the United States and New Zealand ought to be overcome to focus on a new era of cooperation in the Pacific and elsewhere.

Rice said joint efforts to return to democracy to Fiji, stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, push maritime and fisheries security along with promoting free trade must take precedence over New Zealand's ban on nuclear-powered vessels and those carrying atomic arms.

Despite attempts to put the contentious issue behind them, New Zealand's 23-year-old "nuclear free" status continues to hamper joint military activities with the United States. Rice said outstanding issues should be resolved, although she offered no thoughts on how to do so.

"New Zealand is certainly seen as a friend and an ally and one with whom we share values," she said at a news conference with New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark, adding that "a whole host of problems" had been dealt with in recent years.

"This is a very broad and deepening relationship, and it is going to continue to be so," Rice said an earlier event with New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters. "It is by no means a relationship that is somehow harnessed to or constrained by the past."

Rice is just the second secretary of state to visit New Zealand in the past nine years. Although officials have called the dispute a "relic" and the country's prime minister has cordial relations with President Bush, the nuclear issue continues to be problematic.

Since 1985, U.S. warships have been denied entry into New Zealand ports because the Pentagon refuses to declare if they are carrying nuclear weapons and, as a result, New Zealand has been effectively dropped from a joint security treaty with the U.S. and Australia.

Joint military training exercises between the United States and New Zealand have also been suspended since then.

Rice insisted that "the relationship is not stuck in the past" and noted that there have been "a lot of changes in the world since that time."

"If there are remaining issues to be addressed then I think we ought to find a way to address them, because the relationship between New Zealand and the United States is such a beneficial one," she added.

Yet, neither she nor Peters spoke to how that might be achieved.

Instead, they pointed to a broad array of shared interests and projects, particularly in stopping the transport of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons on the high seas and engagement with the island nations of the South Pacific, especially Fiji, where a military government has been in place since a December 2006 coup.

Earlier this month, Fiji's military ruler postponed elections promised for March 2009, saying the timetable was unachievable because much-needed electoral reforms cannot be completed and implemented over the next eight months.

The announcement prompted widespread condemnation and New Zealand, along with Australia, are demanding that the decision be reversed. The matter will figure prominently when Rice and Peters both attend a meeting of senior South Pacific officials on Saturday in Samoa.

"There is no impediment, logistical or otherwise, to a free and fair and open election in Fiji by March 2009," Peters said. "We know and believe that Fiji's only future lies in a democratic government, and that's what we're going to work for."

Rice echoed that call, saying the matter had to be resolved.

"Clearly, the return to democracy in Fiji, clearly elections are the way to do that," she said.

Rice and Peters also said they would continue to work on a languishing free-trade agreement between the United States and New Zealand.