Tillerson trip a chance for NZ to understand Asia-Pacific plans

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has played his cards close to his chest since being appointed, Victoria University's David Capie says. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Wellington next week, in the first visit from a senior member of President Donald Trump’s team. The trip may be a chance to get a better understanding of his administration’s plans for the Asia-Pacific, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

With the steady stream of chaos coming out of the White House, it’s perhaps not a bad time for a senior member of Donald Trump’s administration to get away and see the sights in New Zealand.

Admittedly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be short on free time: he’ll be in the country for less than a day, squeezing in a meeting with Prime Minister Bill English and Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee next Tuesday after two days of discussions in Australia.

Despite the brevity of the trip, David Capie, the director of Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies, says Tillerson’s visit is “pretty significant” for New Zealand, after Vice President Mike Pence bypassed the country during a tour of the Asia-Pacific last month.

“He [Tillerson] could have easily found a way to go onto other destinations without needing to come to New Zealand, so I think the fact he’s made that gesture is a pretty important symbol of the importance they’re putting on keeping the positive momentum in the relationship.”

Capie says New Zealand’s position on issues like North Korea are largely aligned with those of the US, while our desire for a “fully engaged US” in the Asia-Pacific region is also a shared interest.

'Vacuum' in US policy

However, determining how the US views New Zealand is difficult, due to a broader incoherence when it comes to foreign policy.

Capie says that is in part due to trying to determine “the centres of authority” within the administration, each with different views.

“You’ve got for example quite a status quo position of continuity coming out of figures like the Secretary of Defence who have said things about the US relationships with Korea and Japan and the US engagement in the region [where you] wouldn’t have been surprised to see those coming from an Obama administration official.

“On the other hand, you’ve got the president, and his sort of contributions to the discussion via social media have often been a contradiction to what his officials have been saying.”

Another problem is the “huge gaps” within the US bureaucracy, with positions like the assistant secretaries of state for East Asia and the Pacific yet to be filled.

“They’re woefully understaffed, and so that’s created a bit of a vacuum in terms of an articulation of US policy.”

Flying below the radar

Tillerson himself has largely stayed below the radar since joining Trump’s team.

The former ExxonMobil chief executive and chairman has “put his cards pretty close to his chest”, says Capie, in terms of staking out his position on various topics.

“He hasn’t been particularly vocal on a range of issues, he’s been quite careful in the way he’s engaged on some issues, particularly in the region.”

That lack of profile may be in part due to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has played a large role in the president’s overseas trips and aspects of his foreign policy.

However, Capie says one area where Tillerson has shown interest is in other countries sharing more of the military burden - as came up during a Washington meeting earlier this year where he and former Foreign Minister Murray McCully met for the first time.

“One of the interesting things to see will be in fact if there Iraq and possibly Afghanistan, if they both come up and whether there’s more pressure on New Zealand to play a bigger role in future, whether or not that's more people or doing more things other than training, for example getting involved in reconstruction and so on.”

Chance for foreign policy insight

Brownlee says Tillerson’s visit is a sign of New Zealand’s value as a member of the coalition against Islamic State, as well on other defence and security issues.

“It probably too recognises our strategic location, but more importantly it reinforces the Five Eyes arrangement that we have, as well as the close people-to-people relationship we’ve had for a very long time.”

While news of the visit comes the week after the US and NATO asked New Zealand to send additional troops to help with training efforts in Afghanistan, Brownlee said it was up to Tillerson to put any issues about New Zealand’s efforts on the table.

“Our contribution currently to the Middle East is significant - remember that we’ve been on the Sinai Peninsula for well over 30 years, we’ve had people in the staff college in Afghanistan and we have missions in both the Emirates and also in Iraq, which is a very significant contribution.”

Echoing Capie’s comments - albeit less critically - Brownlee says the discussion will be perhaps most valuable as a chance to get “more insight into how the Trump administration sees its foreign policy and engagement internationally”.

“We see this very much as an introductory discussion...albeit [for] a short time, but nonetheless a sufficient time to have a very good dialogue and to meet one on one.”

As for a visit from Trump himself?

“We would always welcome a visit to New Zealand by a US President, but it’s not something that I’m currently aware of that’s on the radar.”