US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has dismissed New Zealand's concerns about its future role in the Asia-Pacific and the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, saying it reflected the will of the American people.

Prime Minister Bill English raised New Zealand's disagreement about the decision to withdraw from the climate change accord in a meeting with Tillerson on Tuesday.

Tillerson was in New Zealand as an add-on to his trip to Australia, meeting with English and Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee at Premier House before jetting out again five hours after he landed.

He is the first senior member of the US Administration to visit New Zealand and US media travelling with him reported people in Wellington gave the one-finger salute at his motorcade in an apparent show of disgust over the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.


After the meeting, Tillerson fended off questions about whether the US was ceding a leadership role in the Asia-Pacific and becoming more isolationist by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

He said there was no suggestion the US was stepping away from such issues, trying to isolate itself or giving up on the Asia-Pacific, pointing to recent visits to the region by US Vice-President Mike Pence and Defence Secretary Mattis.

"One of the reasons I'm in 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 and prosperity interests.

"I think you can expect to see an elevated level of engagement to that you saw over the past eight years."

Tillerson objected to suggestions US President Donald Trump was unpredictable, saying the decisions to withdraw from the TPP and the Paris Accord were well signalled in the campaign.

"Clearly that also represents the will of the American people. There was very little support in Congress for either TPP or the Paris Accord. And I think in both cases the President was quite clear that he took these actions because he knew they were not in the best interests of the American people and our own future prosperity."

In his former role as chief executive of Exxon Mobil Tillerson had supported the Paris Agreement - and had advised Trump to stay in the agreement.

On Tuesday he defended the US record, saying it had cut emissions to 1990s levels.


"We have every expectation that records of performance will continue. There's no reason it would stop just because we withdrew from the Paris climate accord."

English said Tillerson was "very fluent" at explaining the US position and left him reassured about the US role in the Asia-Pacific and its commitment to regional groupings such as Apec, Asean and the Pacific Islands Forum.

English said there had been concerns about the US' ongoing commitment to such groups.

"For us that's the most important aspect discussed today - we want to see the US continue its engagement in the Asia-Pacific because it underpins our economic success ... and it underpins the settled defence and security arrangements which are at times getting a bit tense."

English said he had not directly raised concerns about Trump's style or leadership, but Labour leader Andrew Little said he raised concerns about Trump's conduct in his own meeting with Tillerson. He believed it was important to let senior members of the administration know it was not helping international relations.

"We talked about the idiosyncratic nature of [Trump's] leadership and the impact it was having on world affairs and international relations, and apparently sending a signal the US is less interested in some of those relations than perhaps they were."

He said Tillerson had also reassured him the US intended to maintain its presence and influence in the region.

English said Tillerson had not asked anything of New Zealand but the pair had discussed counter-terrorism and Isis (Islamic State).

Tillerson praised New Zealand as a longstanding partner of the United States in war, including its current deployment to Iraq to train Iraqi forces to drive out Isis and to keep recaptured areas secure.

Although the pair had discussed the US approach to trade through bilateral agreements rather than the multi-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, English said there was no talk about a bilateral agreement with New Zealand.

Nor had he raised any concerns about intelligence sharing with the United States under Five Eyes under the Trump regime, saying he did not see the need to.

Tillerson said the US had called on those countries which had influence to apply pressure over North Korea to halt any nuclear programmes and ways to get North Korea to the table for talks.

"We had a real good conversation about the ways New Zealand can support us in that regard, both in terms of reaffirming that message, but then backing it up on whatever small ways are possible to put action behind the message that North Korea needs to change its path."

English said if New Zealand did have the opportunity to influence North Korea it would take it, but Tillerson was referring to those countries which did trade with North Korea rather than New Zealand.

He said the US and New Zealand had similar views about the need for the South China Seas dispute to be resolved according to international law.