Trump's pick for Ambassador to New Zealand talks of 'unwavering' friendship between two countries
New Zealand has been an "unwavering friend" to the United States, admired for its "fiercely independent" foreign policy, the US Foreign Relations Committee has been told by the man seeking to become Ambassador here.
Lawyer and former Republican US Senator Scott Brown appeared before his confirmation hearing Thursday morning (NZ time).
A formal vote was yet to been taken, but it was the first time since being nominated by President Donald Trump, that he had been able to speak on his views of the relationship between the two countries.
Both Democrat and Republican Senators grilled Brown on how he would handle New Zealand's growing trade relationship with China, New Zealand's place in the Five Eyes intelligence network and its non-nuclear stance.
* Controversial ex-senator and former nude model Scott Brown picked as US ambassador to NZ
* 'It's an insult!' Backlash against Trump's pick for diplomatic post to New Zealand
* Jonathan Milne: If we as a nation find Senator Scott Brown's actions abhorrent, we can do more than talk – we can say no
While New Zealand was in the midst of upgrading its free trade agreement with China, Brown drew a wide berth around questions over whether that relationship could be problematic for the US.
He said focusing on assisting businesses to operate in both countries would further strengthen the US-NZ relationship.
"From my research we are in fact, the number three trading partner - I'd like to be number two, and potentially number one. Can that happen? I'm not sure," he said.
"They're in an interesting position in which they do a tremendous amount of trade - China is their number one trading partner.
"And the thing that's really stuck out with me is the fact that even though there's that business relationship, that trade relationship, they're not afraid to stand up and say 'excuse me China, by the way, the fact that you're building islands and militarising them and changing the law of the air and the law of the sea and international law that has been in place forever - we don't like that.'
"They are fiercely independent, and you can't tell them what you want - you have to ask them. One of the things that my wife and I look forward to, in particular, is getting a fair go by the people of New Zealand."
Brown told the committee any potential for a free trade agreement with the United States was a decision for the US Trade Committee, but he would do all he could to support it, if the decision was taken.
On Five Eyes, Brown said he had not received briefings on the network - due to security reasons, he would not receive those briefings until he had been confirmed to the posting.
But New Zealand's role in the intelligence sharing partnership, which also included the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, was "highly valued" in the Pacific region.
New Zealand's ban on nuclear ships had led to a contentious period in the relationship between the two countries, but it had warmed.
Brown cited the navy's invitation for the US to send destroyer the USS Sampson to New Zealand for 75th anniversary commemorations.
"We went in, we were asked to come in, we were approved at the highest levels by the New Zealand Government and it was a wonderful first step in rehabilitating that relationship."
While visiting, the Sampson was one of a number of foreign vessels who diverted to the aid of residents in and around Kaikoura, after 7.8 magnitude earthquake on November 14.
In his own testimony, Brown said New Zealand had been an "unwavering friend of the United States".
"That long and remarkable history has had its challenges, but hard work and strong communication efforts have made our ties even stronger," he said.
"The US-New Zealand relationship has also been strengthened due to New Zealand's commitment to our shared war against terror as well as reconstruction and stability efforts in the Middle East.
"I would like to publicly thank the citizens of New Zealand and especially the men and women of its armed forces."
There were both challenges and opportunities in the Pacific region.
"The United States is one of New Zealand's top trading partners. If confirmed, I hope to dramatically assist in the promotion of even greater economic, scientific, and cultural exchanges between the United States and New Zealand, including strengthening Pacific cooperation," he said.
"With regard to investments, I will focus on both New Zealand's investment in the United States, and American investment in New Zealand."
Brown said he was also committed to increasing bilateral trade and commerce opportunities, assisting with the illegal fishing concerns, "and recognising and helping to solve environmental issues".
"Above all, my greatest responsibility will be to assist and protect the interests of US citizens who are either living in or visiting New Zealand and Samoa."
He said he was honoured to be nominated by Trump for the posting, which held cross-accreditation to Samoa.
The subcommittee would soon hold a business meeting to vote Brown out of the Foreign Relations Committee - likely to be early next week.
After that, it would be up to Majority Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell to decide when Brown's nomination would go to the senate for a full vote.
At that point, the nominee can be sworn-in and prepare to take up duties as Ambassador-designate.
The Ambassador-designate must present credentials to the country to which they have been confirmed, before they are confirmed as Ambassador and able to take up official duties.