WELLINGTON – Tom Udall, the new U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, says he wants to find areas of common ground with China in a region where tensions often run high.
Udall, a former U.S. senator from New Mexico, held his first press conference in his new role Thursday after presenting his credentials a day earlier.
He said the U.S. relationship with China was complex because the two countries disagree over human rights issues and compete economically.
“But, at the same time, and this is in the vein of when Richard Nixon went to China, it's talking about ‘How do we find things to work together on?’” Udall said. “'How do we find ways to cooperate?' And I believe that there’s been a big effort by our government already to work on climate change with China.”
He said one of the biggest challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region was the tension in the South China Sea, where China has increased its military presence and assertiveness. He said international patrols had been welcomed by many nations.
“These are international waters and they should be open and free,” Udall said.
He said he sees his new role as a peacemaker.
“I’m here not to stir things up ... I'm here as a diplomat," Udall said.
Udall said he's been a good friend of U.S. President Joe Biden since first interning for him in 1973. Udall replaces another former U.S. senator, Scott Brown, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump.
Udall, 73, said he had never visited New Zealand before his recent arrival but was working on learning the Indigenous Maori language.
A longtime environmental advocate, Udall said climate change posed an existential threat, especially to Pacific island nations. He said he was eager to work with New Zealand on renewable energy issues, including its efforts with geothermal and hydro power and its expansion into solar and wind power.
Because of its longstanding nuclear-free policy, New Zealand was recently left out of a new security alliance between the U.S., Britain and Australia. The new alliance would see Australia build nuclear submarines using British and U.S. expertise.
Udall said he doesn't think New Zealand's stance, which includes a ban on nuclear-powered ships entering its ports, will impede a strengthening of defense ties with the U.S.
He said New Zealand favors American involvement in the region and that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had specifically said the new alliance didn't change anything.
“I think that was a very positive thing for her to say,” Udall said.
Udall, a Democrat, spent two terms in the Senate, five terms in the House and served as New Mexico’s attorney general. He comes from a long line of public servants.