Washington’s new man in Wellington may not have quite the colourful history of his predecessor, but Tom Udall’s appointment comes alongside a more coherent US approach to the Indo-Pacific 

The stark contrast between Donald Trump’s presidency and Joe Biden’s administration is already plain to see – but further evidence has been provided in the form of the United States’ new ambassador to New Zealand.

Like Trump appointee Scott Brown, Tom Udall is a former senator turned diplomat, but that may be where the similarities end. 

Where former Massachusetts senator Brown wore a New England Patriots tie to his first engagement with the New Zealand media, Udall opted for a striking silver and turquoise bolo tie – the official necktie of New Mexico, which he served as a senator from 2009 to 2021.

There seems to be no public record of Udall matching Brown’s triumph “America’s Sexiest Man” – or accompanying nude photo spread – in a Cosmopolitan magazine competition.

The rock band memorabilia which plastered the walls of the Camperdown residence under Brown has been replaced with more traditional decor, although Udall and his wife have had little chance to put their own stamp on the place, having only recently finished a stay in MIQ (unlike Brown, who used diplomatic privileges to skip a government facility and instead isolate at Camperdown).

The new ambassador has arrived in the Indo-Pacific region at a time of growing instability and Great Power tensions, highlighted in a speech to the Lowy Institute by Biden’s ‘Asia tsar’ Kurt Campbell the day before Udall’s press conference.

“Anxieties about China have risen across the region, and that’s just undeniable,” Campbell said when talking about the growth of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

Aukus and the Quad: ‘Nobody’s been sidelined’

Deepening US ties with fellow ‘Quad’ nations Australia, Japan and India, coupled with what Campbell called the “strategic intimacy” of its new Aukus trilateral defence partnership alongside Australia and the United Kingdom, have led some to question whether New Zealand is being shut out of a reshaped regional order.

But Udall said it was “fair to say that nobody’s been sidelined”, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern herself welcoming increased American engagement in the region.

“That [new alliances] doesn’t harm the Five Eyes and what we do there and intelligence sharing: those things are all very, very important to New Zealand and they’re important to the United States and the other countries that are a part of the Five Eyes.”

Biden believed that the US had a role as a Pacific nation, Udall said, and that the country was “committed with allies and friends and partners to make sure that the Indo-Pacific region is a rules-based order”.

Asked about the biggest threats to the region, he mentioned challenges to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, although without directly citing China’s role in building artificial islands and refusing to adhere to the rulings of a United Nations tribunal on territorial disputes.

Udall described the US-China relationship as being “very complex” – a slight understatement – mentioning human rights concerns and economic competition as areas of adversarial conflict.

“But at the same time, and this is in the vein of when Richard Nixon went to China, [we are] talking about…how do we find things to work together, how do we find ways to cooperate?

“There’s been a big effort by our government already to work on climate change with China and I was very happy that John Kerry in his [climate envoy] role met with his counterpart right while COP26 was going on, [and] made announcements as to specific things that they were going to do.”

Climate change would also be a likely area of emphasis in the bilateral relationship with New Zealand, he said, noting the “existential threat” posed to Pacific island nations and the country’s ongoing work on renewable energy.

“In my service, I’ve tried to be a peacekeeper trying to figure out, how do we get this to a point where we get people working together?”

But in one area where New Zealand would like to see progress – movement on a bilateral free trade deal, or American engagement in multilateral talks – Udall was positive but non-committal.

“The New Zealand Government, because of its current trading and where they are, has said that they want to diversify, and I’m very interested in first of all engaging and working with them … to find out exactly what they mean by that…

“We’re a big free trader, we like to trade, so we should be interested in engaging there and discussing with them and see what we can do.”

Udall said it was possible he would have discussions with US Trade Representative Katherine Tai about where a New Zealand deal sat on Biden’s agenda, and whether she would consider a visit.

(Brown made a similar, but ultimately unfulfilled, commitment “to explore any and all opportunities with the businesses and leadership in New Zealand to try to come up with some sort of agreement that really benefits us in, quite frankly, a different way”.)

Udall’s New Mexico background may also help him in forging relationships with Māori, having worked with the state’s large Native American population both in his political career and during a previous life as a federal prosecutor (although he was quick to state he had much to learn about the indigenous population here).

“The indigenous people of New Mexico, the Native Americans, really care about the fact that they are nations within a nation, and they care about their sovereignty, and so that’s like a starting issue.

“And yet when you start getting below the surface it can get a little bit contentious, because there’s the conflict between the other governmental entities and the governmental entity of the tribe, and so in my service, I’ve tried to be a peacekeeper trying to figure out, how do we get this to a point where we get people working together?”

Whether that peaceful sentiment holds up as the US and China compete for influence, and countries like New Zealand come under pressure to commit to new initiatives, remains to be seen.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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