By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's decision to miss his first meeting with NATO foreign ministers has unsettled European allies who fear the no-show reopens questions about President Donald Trump's commitment to the alliance.
Reuters exclusively reported on Monday that Tillerson would stay at home to attend Trump's expected April 6-7 talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida, skipping the April 5-6 NATO talks. U.S. officials also said Tillerson would visit Russia later in April.
"No matter how you spin it, this is unfortunate symbolism," said one senior European diplomat, adding that it undid the work of Trump's defense minister and vice president, who visited NATO headquarters in Brussels in February to provide reassurances after Trump's criticism of the alliance.
During his campaign and on the eve of taking office, Trump called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization "obsolete", although he has since said he strongly supports the alliance.
Some allies, particularly in the former Soviet bloc, are acutely sensitive to any sign of waning U.S. interest in their defense as they deal with a more assertive Russia.
Concerns that Trump is too close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom the West has sought to isolate for annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, made Tillerson's expected visit to Brussels all the more pressing, European allies said.
Tillerson worked with Russia's government for years as a top executive at Exxon Mobil, and has questioned sanctions against Moscow that he said could harm U.S. businesses.
"We needed to hear his vision for the alliance," said a diplomat due to attend the April ministerial.
NATO's quarterly meetings are closed-door sessions over about two days in which governments discuss security strategies and approve top secret documents designed to guide the nuclear-armed alliance in areas ranging from training in Afghanistan to defenses against Iranian missiles.
Given the U.S. role as the de facto head of the alliance, it is rare for the United States' top diplomat to miss a NATO meeting. The last time was during the Iraq war in 2003, when Colin Powell was forced to cancel at the last moment.
A NATO official in Brussels said it was "up to allies to decide at what level they are represented" and referred further questions to the U.S. State Department.
U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, who served under President Barack Obama and who has stayed on under Trump, is expected to represent the United States at the NATO meeting next month, two diplomats said.
Trump himself is expected in Brussels for a NATO summit in May, although the date is still under discussion.
A senior French diplomat said the U.S. State Department still seemed to be in a state of transition.
"We still don't see the role of the State Department in the new U.S. administration. Tillerson has been discreet and a great number of posts have not been filled so the modus operandi is still in limbo," the French diplomat said.
Several other diplomats said they were unhappy that Tillerson had not offered to hold a NATO meeting in Washington later this week, given that 26 alliance foreign ministers and Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg would be there for a meeting of the coalition against the Islamic State militant group.
The U.S. State Department spokeswoman said Tillerson would not have a separate, NATO-focused meeting with the 26 ministers but that they would meet in the counter-Islamic State talks.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Gareth Jones)