The Dominion Post
Trump’s military chief visits NZ
China’s growing influence and major security concerns around Iran are expected to dominate talks when the new United States Secretary of Defence visits New Zealand today.
Mark Esper’s visit to New Zealand is part of a five-nation tour and comes 11 days after he landed a permanent job in US President Donald Trump’s cabinet.
Professor Robert Patman believed China, then Iran, would dominate Esper’s discussions with Kiwi officials.
China’s influence in the South Pacific, especially Tonga and Fiji, had grown ‘‘dramatically’’ in the past decade or so, Patman said.
The Otago University professor believed some tensions about foreign policy existed in the Labour-led coalition government.
While Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and some of her Labour colleagues did not ‘‘share any part of the world view’’ of Trump, Patman believed Foreign Minister Winston Peters was more inclined to advocate for greater US involvement in the Pacific.
Iran was likely to feature in talks after oil prices rose following international tensions in the narrow and important shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz, south of Iran.
Patman said that, generally, New Zealand wanted a rulesbased international order rather than one ‘‘where great powers throw their weight around’’.
New Zealand and the US had enough shared values and interests to likely overcome any current disputes, he added.
Auckland University professor Stephen Hoadley said New Zealand might be asked to contribute to freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea.
Concerns had risen in that part of the world over the Chinese militarisation of the Spratly Islands.
‘‘It’s more a political posture,’’ said Hoadley.
‘‘New Zealand is traditionally a little less inclined to be confrontational.’’
He said both New Zealand’s frigates were being refitted in Canada anyway.
Hoadley said Peters and New Zealand Defence Minister Ron Mark had already identified China as changing the balance of power in the Pacific, even though Ardern avoided naming China in such discussions, favouring terms like ‘‘international law’’.
Esper was not as influential as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo but still took part in cabinet meetings with President Trump and the CIA director, Hoadley said.
‘‘Esper will do what the president says but it is a little unclear what the president wants to happen in the Persian Gulf.’’
Hoadley said Trump had been ‘‘imprudent’’ to deploy an aircraft carrier to the region.
That Esper would visit New Zealand so soon after taking over as fulltime defence secretary should not give Kiwis a huge sense of self-importance, Hoadley said.
‘‘I suspect that New Zealand is pretty far down the list ... maybe it is a blessing.’’
Hoadley said the US saw New Zealand as a ‘‘ a welcome and easy partner to get along with’’ and Esper was unlikely to ask New Zealand for much.
Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper said Esper would also visit Australia, Mongolia, South Korea and Japan.
Esper’s appointment followed an extraordinary seven-month vacancy after his predecessor, Jim Mattis, parted ways with Trump over multiple disagreements.
Esper was acting defence secretary until winning overwhelming Senate support last month from Democrats and Republicans alike.