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Tillerson to Tackle Regional Challenges on First Trip to South Pacific


FILE - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gestures while speaking to State Department employees.

The United States is enlisting its Oceania allies to tackle growing threats from North Korea and counter increasing Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. officials and experts say.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis are departing for Australia for annual ministerial consultations on June 5, aimed at deepening cooperation on “bilateral, regional and global” issues.

The top American diplomat will then travel to New Zealand June 6 to “reaffirm strong ties and cooperative coordination on shared peaceful interests” with that country, according to the State Department.

“We’ll be looking at ways in which we can more effectively counter the provocations that the North Koreans are making and find more effective ways of increasing pressure on them to get them back onto a constructive path of denuclearization,” State Department Deputy Assistance Secretary Matt Matthews told VOA during a telephone briefing Thursday.

Matthews says the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) meeting has been the principal forum for consultations between the two governments since 1985 in order to address “critical challenges.”

This undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 30, 2017 shows a test-fire of a ballistic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea.
This undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 30, 2017 shows a test-fire of a ballistic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea.

Frequent missile tests

Next week’s talks come amid North Korea’s increasingly frequent missile tests and most recently, a short-range ballistic missile launch that Pyongyang called a success on Monday.

Regional experts told VOA that while the ministerial consultations with Australia and New Zealand are conducted regularly, President Donald Trump’s administration is sending a clear message that Washington will “continue the alliance relationship.”

The U.S. also is looking for assurance from both governments to “continue promoting maritime security cooperation in the waters near Australia and extending into the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea,” Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum Program Director Carl Baker told VOA.

The State Department says Washington and Canberra share an interest in maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea, including the South China Sea.

“Chinese military and economic expansion, as well as the North Korean nuclear threat, pose a challenge to American interests in the Asia-Pacific region and the world,“ nominee for U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa Scott Brown told American lawmakers in a written statement.

China, North Korea

During his recent nomination hearing, Brown told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that “the expansionism of China” and “the belligerence of North Korea” are two important areas that he will focus on when working with New Zealand.

Brown’s nomination was cleared by the committee on May 25 and now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

The U.S. and Australia regularly engage in a security dialogue with Japan to counter North Korea’s nuclear proliferation.

The U.S.-Australia Force Posture Agreement, signed in 2014, paved the way for close defense and security cooperation, including the enhanced rotations of U.S. Air Force aircraft to Australia.

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