A Nato general visiting New Zealand, General Petr Pavel, confirmed that United States President Donald Trump pressed fellow leaders of the military alliance at a private dinner in Brussels about increasing their defence spending to 3 per cent of gdp.

He also raised the possibility of a back payment for countries that hadn't spent enough. But the general said the president, who campaigned on making allies pay more for their defence, had been consistent in his messaging and he didn't say anything surprising.

"He was pushing his continuous message on fair burden sharing, defence spending, contribution to counter terrorism, and he went a little bit further on by announcing even a desire to have more than two per cent," Pavel told the New Zealand Herald in a wide-ranging interview.

"He was talking about 2 per cent as a minimum and preferably in future 3 per cent."

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Foreign Policy magazine reported that during the private dinner, which a source described as a "train wreck," Trump went off script and said they should be spending 3 per cent of gdp and have Europeans pay back pay to make up for low defence.

The magazine said other leaders were "appalled."

The US is one of only five countries in the 29-country alliance that honours its pledge to spend at least 2 per cent of gdp on defence (the others are Greece, Estonai, Britian and Poland).

Nato HQ in Brussels declined to comment when it was first approached by the magazine but General Pavel in Wellington was prepared to discuss what Trump had said.

"He used that argument several times [back pay] but I think he was not properly informed about internal functioning of the alliance, especially in terms of funding because there is no common basket where nations put their money," he said.

"And we also do not talk in the alliance just about the input. We are also focused on what we can buy for all the money. So 2 per cent is an important input into our defence planning but all defence planning in the alliance is focused on delivering capabilities."

General Pavel is chairman of the Nato military committee, an elected position for a three-year term, and is principal military adviser to Nato's secretary-general. He was previously Chief of General Staff of the Czech Republic Armed Forces.

It can be also quite tricky because sometimes we are complaining about too much American leadership. If we lack it, then we are complaining about lack of leadership.

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Asked about US leadership in Nato and whether it was ongoing, he gave a diplomatic answer.

All of the 29 nations were sovereign and in that sense they all had the same value of voice, he said.

But because of the size of America, its economy and military, to a large extent countries relied on its leadership in terms of ideas, command and control and military capabilities.

"However it can be also quite tricky because sometimes we are complaining about too much American leadership," he said. "If we lack it then we are complaining about lack of leadership.

"To find a balance is always difficult. But from a country that is both an economic and military superpower you would expect that kind of leadership.

"It is fair to say that with the change of administration some policies will have to be defined or redefined. We are still in the period of waiting for these new policies, for the Middle East, for Afghanistan or towards Russia."

The general also commented on President Trump's failure to mention Article V of the Treaty of Washington (which says an attack on one Nato member is an attack on all) at an unveiling of memorial to September 11 attacks, when Article V was invoked.

"Of course with the unveiling of this monument devoted to 9-11 in front of the main new headquarters building, our leaders and public and media were expecting acknowledging invocation of Article V," he said.

"They didn't hear it from the speech. But at the same time he was speaking about allies, he was speaking about standing shoulder to shoulder. In other words he acknowledged the value of the alliance.

"So I don't see it as really significant that he was not specific and he did not use the words Article V."

Navies are very useful when it comes to fostering co-operation says General Petr Pavel. HMNZS Canterbury. Photo/ Alan Gibson
Navies are very useful when it comes to fostering co-operation says General Petr Pavel. HMNZS Canterbury. Photo/ Alan Gibson

Talking about New Zealand, Pavel said it had a strong contribution to make towards regional stability, particularly with its Navy.

While Nato had no direct interest in the South China Sea, "indirectly Nato is involved."

"We in Nato observe the situation with great attention and we also co-operate with all the partners from this side of the world including Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and Japan to fully understand the situation and to take measures where necessary."

Asked specifically what New Zealand could do, he said primarily through co-operation such as exercises, dialogue and any measure aimed to decrease tensions and increase transparency.

"Navies are a very useful tool in this sense, through port visits, through participation in operations such as Ocean Shield where we had ships from South Korea, from China, from India, even from Russia."

When all those nations were working on issues of common interest, it built trust and reduced tension.

New Zealand has a partnership agreement with Nato, which was signed in 2012 by former Prime Minister John Key.

It built on a more co-operative relationship established under the previous Labour Government and Nato's leadership of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan where New Zealand deployed the SAS and ran a provincial reconstruction team.

Nato now runs the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, a train, advise and assist mission.

New Zealand has been asked to send just two more Defence Force personnel in addition to the 10 Kiwis who remain in Kabul.

Larger nations are considering bigger commitments to the 13,000 international force already there in an advise and assist role with Afghan security forces.

Australia will send another 30 to make 300.

Trump has given Defence Secretary Jim Mattis authority to send between 3000 and 5000 more troops the Afghanistan on top of the 9800 US troops already there (about 2000 of them in combat in a US counter-terrorism force).
General Pavel though it would be close to 3000 than 5000.

He said he did not see the Resolute support mission changing in terms of the type of work it did - "that is train advise and assist Afghan defence forces in developing their own capabilities and they are improving."

"They need more focus on leadership, especially junior leadership, they need more focus on mentoring especially in preparation, planning and execution of operation. And they need more of our support in sustainment in personnel management, activities that constitute the power of military.

"But when it comes to fighting, it is now entirely on Afghan defence forces."

General Pavel had a meeting today with Defence Minister Mark Mitchell.