Kamala Harris, vice president of the United States, has arrived in Singapore at the start of a short tour to Southeast Asia on which she will offer reassurances of Washington’s commitment to the region amid concerns over China’s growing influence there.
Reuters news agency quoted a US official saying that Harris’s trip, which began on Sunday, will show Washington was in Southeast Asia “to stay” while AFP cited an official saying that the vice president “will make clear throughout the trip that we do have an enduring commitment to the region”.
Worries about the outcome in Afghanistan could muddy that message, however.
Experts say Harris will have to contend with questions over US dependability following its chaotic pullout from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s lightning takeover of the country.
“What has happened in Afghanistan has been quite frustrating and upsetting for a lot of countries,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center think tank.
“The concern is one day when the United States determines you are no longer as important, they can just pack up and leave and there is nothing you can do about it,” he told Reuters.
The chaotic and ongoing evacuations from the Afghan capital, Kabul, evoked images of the US’s 1975 withdrawal from Vietnam, when US helicopters ferried final evacuees from the embassy roof, as Viet Cong troops advanced. Following the war, Washington sought to isolate Vietnam’s Communist-ruled government for 20 years, but now enjoys warm ties with it given shared concerns about China.
Harris is expected to visit Vietnam on Tuesday after three days in Singapore. She will spend two days in Vietnam and will be the first US vice president to visit the country.
Strategic, economic importance
A White House official, who asked not to be named, told AFP Southeast Asia remains “strategically important and economically important to this country” in light of China’s dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.
“That hasn’t changed with Afghanistan,” the official said.
An unnamed Biden administration official also told Reuters that Washington was was confident the US’s Indo-Pacific allies saw it as a “steadfast partner” and said Harris would emphasize that on her trip to Singapore and Vietnam.
Singapore shares US concerns about China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region, while Vietnam has been a vocal opponent of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. They and other Southeast Asian countries have welcomed the US military presence there given China’s militarisation of the South China Sea and its vast coastguard and fishing fleet.
Four Southeast Asian states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – as well as Taiwan have overlapping claims with Beijing in the flashpoint sea.
Some experts point to a silver lining for Southeast Asia from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying it will enable Washington to free up resources from a counterterrorism mission and focus more on countering Beijing.
“The shift to deterring and preparing for a conflict with a near-peer competitor will be accelerated as the counterterrorism mindset recedes,” said Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, referring to China.
Still, others say the US has much to do to gain the trust of Southeast Asian countries.
“Following the previous administration and what’s happening in Afghanistan, it is a categorical imperative for the US to build up political trust in this region,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore.
During the Singapore leg of her trip, Harris will meet the president and prime minister and make a stop at the Changi Naval Base, where she will address US sailors on board the visiting USS Tulsa.
In Vietnam, Harris will hold meetings with the country’s government, attend the opening of a Southeast Asian regional branch of the US Centers for Disease Control, and meet civil society representatives in the communist country.
She will also join a virtual meeting of Southeast Asian officials which will focus on the coronavirus pandemic.