United States Vice President Kamala Harris will embark on Friday on a trip to Asia, with the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Washington’s desperate scramble to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans sure to cast a long shadow over the visit.
While the trip was announced in late July, before the bulk of the Taliban’s lightning offensive across the country amid a US and foreign troop withdrawal that saw the group take Kabul on August 15, observers say the situation has increased urgency for Harris to bolster the perception of US credibility in its foreign policy.
That comes as some have come to question, in light of recent events in Afghanistan, whether allies can rely on Washington to fulfil longstanding security commitments.
In a briefing late on Thursday, senior US officials sought to separate the objectives for the trip from the developments in Afghanistan, saying the tour was meant to further the goal of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region while “revitalising our alliances and partnerships”.
The visit comes as the Biden administration continues to emphasise its top foreign policy priority of combating China’s economic and military influence.
US political sway and naval dominance in the Asia Pacific and Southeast Asia remain “strategically important and economically important to this country. That hasn’t changed with Afghanistan”, a White House official said.
“There’s a difference between ensuring open sea lanes in Asia, which is a priority for the United States, and the continued involvement in another country’s civil war,” the official said, referring to Afghanistan.
Biden administration officials also expressed confidence that the rise of the Taliban will not harm allies’ trust in US commitment to far-reaching strategic goals across Asia.
“We are confident that our partners throughout the Indo-Pacific see the United States as a steadfast partner. And that’s certainly going to be one of the things the vice president emphasises on this trip,” one official said.
Still, critics have already pointed to what some consider to be the unfortunate optics of the trip.
After visiting Singapore, an economic powerhouse that shares concerns over Beijing’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region, Harris will visit Vietnam, a vocal opponent of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The trip to Hanoi will come as Biden officials continue to bat down comparisons of the rushed evacuation in Afghanistan and the chaotic 1975 US evacuation of Americans and some Vietnamese from a CIA roof in Saigon in 1975 as Viet Cong took the city.
Ghastly images of Afghans falling to their death from a US evacuation flight shortly after the Taliban entered Kabul have further exacerbated condemnation from refugee advocates.
In a tweet, former White House press secretary for President Donald Trump Sean Spicer said “Veep”, the satirical US government television comedy series, “could not have scripted this better”.
Still, some experts have pointed to a silver lining for allies concerned about China, saying the Afghanistan withdrawal will enable Washington to free up resources that can be refocused on countering Beijing’s policies.
“The shift to deterring and preparing for a conflict with a near-peer competitor will be accelerated as the counterterrorism mindset recedes,” Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told the Reuters news agency, referring to China.
On Thursday, US officials also maintained while Afghanistan remained separate from the Asia trip, Harris would continue to work on issues related to the developments.
“We can do more than one thing at a time,” the official said.