Tillerson defends US approach in Wellington visit

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was keen to emphasise his country's commitment to the Asia-Pacific after meeting Prime Minister Bill English. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson faced chilly weather during a flying visit to Wellington, but was keen to emphasise the warmth of his country's relationship with New Zealand. However, Tillerson was quick to push back against any suggestion the US was abandoning its leadership role in the Asia-Pacific, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

Was the climate fighting back?

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clasped an umbrella tightly after arriving at Wellington’s military air terminal, trying to repel the rain and wind as he was greeted by Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee.

The inclement conditions threatened the official powhiri at Premier House - a fact which may have been welcomed by the hundreds of protesters outside Parliament, given President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate deal.

Yet the weather subsided, and despite reports of Kiwis “flipping the bird” at Tillerson’s motorcade, he received a warmer welcome from Prime Minister Bill English as the Government hosted a member of Trump’s administration for the first time.

New Zealand, along with many others, has been anxious about the isolationist approach of the US since the president took power, seeking greater certainty about the country’s foreign policy plans.

Tillerson was certainly keen to hit the right notes: speaking in a broad Texan drawl, the silver-haired former oilman talked up the two countries’ shared sacrifice in various conflicts, including the fight against Islamic State in the Middle East.

“It’s a visible demonstration of our commitment to shared values around freedom, around international rules-based order, and that our words mean something because we’re willing to sacrifice to defend those.”

US 'not unpredictable'

Tillerson was quick to push back at a tricky question about the “unpredictability” of Trump’s approach to the Paris climate deal and the TPP trade deal.

“I would take exception to your characterisation of it being unpredictable: the president ran his campaign on the intention to withdraw from the TPP and the Paris climate accord.

“He did make time and make very deliberative decisions to finally take action on both of those promises...because he knew they were not in the best interests of the American people and our future prosperity.”

It was wrong, Tillerson said, to see the US’s withdrawal from the deals as a wider surrender of leadership.

“I don’t think anyone should interpret that the US has somehow stepped away from these issues or is seeking to isolate itself: indeed, one of the reasons I’m in the region, one of the reasons why Vice President [Mike] Pence has already been to the region, (Defence) Secretary (James) Mattis has been to the region, is to reaffirm to everyone that the United States views this region of the world as extremely important to both our national security interest and our own economic prosperity interest.”

English appeared comforted, saying afterwards Tillerson had “set out a pretty clear direction” for continued involvement in the area.

“We were reassured by the fact that he's come so early in his reign and by his description of how he expects the US to function in the Asia-Pacific, because for us that’s probably the most important aspect discussed today," English said.

“We want to see the US continue its engagement in the Asia-Pacific because it underpins our economic success...and also it underpins its settled defence and security relationships which at times are getting a bit tense.”

Taking on terror

With the London attacks fresh on the pair’s minds - Tillerson was in the city less than a fortnight ago - the American said counter-terrorism efforts were “extraordinarily important” in taking on extremism in all its forms.

“We have to win this fight on the battlefield, but defeating them on the battlefield will not win this - we have to win this fight in the ideological sense as well, and that means getting into the social media space, getting into the mosques...getting into the conversation.”

New Zealand could also play a role, Tillerson said, in putting pressure on North Korea to “rethink the strategy and the pathway they’re on”.

While it was easy for the pair to agree on most topics, there were more sensitive issues up for discussion.

Tillerson continued the US’s hard line against China’s military installations in the South China Sea, which was threatening “not just this region but the entire world’s economic prosperity”.

“These actions they’re taking to build islands and more alarmingly to militarise these islands threatens the stability, the stability that really has served China as well or better than anyone in terms of China’s ability to grow its economy.”

While he said the US and New Zealand were “of one mind”, our closer relationship with China has led the Government to be less strident in its criticism - demonstrated by English’s suggestion after the meeting that the US was taking a “pretty face-to-face” approach.

“As he outlined...we have similar views about the way it should be resolved - clearly for the US it’s a much more immediate issue.”

Tact versus tweets

English also “registered our disagreement” with Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris deal, although Tillerson offered a staunch defence of the US’s climate change record.

“Our greenhouse gas emissions are at levels that were last seen in the 1990s - that’s been done with 50 million more energy consumers than we had in the 90s, with an economy that’s twice as large...that’s been without a Paris climate accord. It’s been done without heavy-handed regulations.”

Tillerson fielded, and largely dodged, a question from travelling media about the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, while the president’s proclivity for late-night tweets also came up.

“The president has his own unique ways of communicating with the American people and the world, and it’s served him pretty well. I don’t intend to advise him on how he ought to communicate - that’s up to him.”

English was similarly hands off, perhaps mindful of the furore his “walk-run” and spaghetti on pizza social media brought: “I don’t think it’s our position to comment on the way that the elected leader of another country conducts his business - we wouldn't expect him to be raising issues about my Facebook.”

Yet one lingering thought after Tillerson’s visit was that all his tact and diplomacy could be so easily undone by a Trump tweet.