Inside the Tillerson talks - accepting the South Pacific challenge
By Richard Harman (author)
President Trump’s Secretary of State who made a flying visit to Wellington yesterday proved to be anything but an “America First” isolationist.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson surprised the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and officials with a promise for the US to become more involved in the South Pacific region.
His promise is set against a background of American dis-engagement in the region which had allowed China to fill the gap.
Both Australia and New Zealand have become increasingly concerned about Chinese influence in the Pacific and one diplomatic source suggested to POLITIK that Australia had been pressing the Americans hard to become more involved.
Officials said the US offer could involve naval activity, diplomatic activity and perhaps most importantly arranging financial assistance for the financially troubled small states of the region.
“We were reassured by the fact that he has 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 is probably the most important aspect discussed today," Prime Minister Bill English told reporters after his hour-long meeting with the Secretary.
While English was pleased to hear that the US did not intend to retreat from Asia, which he said was the region which underpinned New Zealand’s economic success, it was the US promise to re-engage with the Pacific which stood out.
And that was because of growing concern about the role of China.
English told reporters after the meeting that China’s campaign to win influence in the Pacific occupied “quite a bit of the discussion”.
There's been a lot of discussion in recent times about the way China projects its influence, and in some respects, it's attractive to a lot of smaller countries in the Pacific, but the terms on which it happens aren't always favourable.
“We focus on our own positive relationships with these smaller countries.”
Some of the discussion focussed on Chinese lending for infrastructure projects in the region.
He said the US was indicating that it would support some of the multi lateral banks becoming more pro active “in offering what would probably be better terms (than China was offering) to those countries.
“The Pacific is becoming more of an area of interest for larger countries; there’s more Russian presence; there’s more Chinese presence; there’s speculation about more Indian presence, and of course the US has always been a predominant influence in the Pacific, so we have every interest in understanding how all of these larger countries are thinking about their influence here.”
Tillerson’s promise to re-engage with the Pacific was part of a number of reassuring statements he made while he was in Wellington.
“I don’t think anyone should interpret that the US has stepped away from these issues (Climate Change and trade) or is seeking to isolate itself,” he told a joint news conference with English.
“Indeed one of the reasons I’m in the region, one of the reasons Vice President Pense has already been to the region; (Defence) Secretary 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.
“I think you can expect to see an elevated level of engagement to that which you saw over the past eight years.”
But the difficulty the Trump administration faces in the region was amply demonstrated by the logistics of Ellerson’s visit.
Whereas his predecessor, John Kerry, brought a six-person team to his talks last November with Prime Minister John Key and his officials, Tillerson was accompanied by only three officials, an indication of how long it is taking the Trump administration to fill key roles in the State Department.
The current Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs is career diplomat, Susan Thornton, but she is only acting in the post.
But at least yesterday her boss, Tillerson, reassured Wellington that the United States was not yet in retreat.