Rex Tillerson was not quite the Long Tall Texan who rode into town on his big white horse today.

He is shorter than Prime Minister Bill English for a start - which makes him very short.

But the former oil baron and Texan native cut a more impressive figure as President Donald Trump's Secretary of State than might be suggested by the apparent shambles of the Administration in DC.

During Tillerson's three-hour stopover in wet and windy Wellington, he was categorical about US foreign policy messages which have become somewhat blurred by a mix of campaign messages, new tensions in old friendship, presidential tweets and other covfefe.

Advertisement

But Tillerson was clear: if anything, the United States will be elevating its engagement in the Asia Pacific region, compared with the eight-year Obama Administration.

Tillerson defended Trump from a New Zealand reporter's description of him as "unpredictable" in relation to the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal and from the Paris Accord on climate change.

He said the things one expects to hear about shared experiences, shared values and shared sacrifices.

But Tillerson did not defend the indefensible: Trump's tweet criticising London mayor Sadiq Khan for warning citizens there would be extra police on the streets because of the terrorist threat and not to be alarmed.

While the world weeps for London, the US President attacks its mayor over some imagined wrong.

It was an illustration of the impossible mission for Trump's foreign-focused Cabinet members, Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis - for every step forward they make in reassuring friends and allies that the US has not gone gaga, it is two tweets back.

Tillerson and Mattis have been on a mission in the Asia Pacific not only to reassure friends and allies that US alliances and partnerships are as solid as they once were but to strengthen them, for whatever lies ahead.

Speaking in Singapore at the weekend Mattis said the US regards North Korea as a "clear and present danger" and said the US commitment to defend Japan and South Korea was "ironclad."

Advertisement

On China's building of an artificial island in the South China Sea, Mattis said: "We cannot and will not accept unilateral coercive changes to the status quo. We will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows."

That sounds like playing "chicken" in the South China Seas.

English welcomed the Tillerson visit and his reassurances as though he had ridden in on a white charger.

With only five visits to New Zealand in the past 20 years, more often than not Secretaries of State have taken the short-cut home after a visit to Australia.

The fact that Tillerson made the visit to New Zealand so early in his term is evidence of what he said at his press conference - that the US intends to elevate its presence in the region.