US vice president faces task of convincing Southeast Asia of US reliability amid its chaotic pullout from Afghanistan.
US Vice President Kamala Harris says the US remains “singularly focused” on ongoing evacuations in Afghanistan, adding there will be time later to evaluate how the execution of the American troop withdrawal affected the chaotic situation on the ground.
Harris made the comments in Singapore on Monday during an Asia trip that also includes a stopover in Vietnam aimed at bolstering ties with regional partners.
It comes as part of Washington’s wider foreign policy priority of countering China’s growing economic and security influence.
“There is going to be plenty of time to analyse what has happened and what has taken place in the context of the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Harris said during a joint news conference with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
“But right now we are singularly focused on evacuating American citizens, Afghans who have worked with us and Afghans who are vulnerable, including women and children and that is our singular focus at this time,” said Harris.
Lee, for his part, added that Singapore had offered transport aircraft to help with evacuations. “We hope Afghanistan does not become an epicentre for terrorism again,” he said.
US President Joe Biden has faced criticism at home and abroad over his handling of the withdrawal of US forces and the muddled evacuation process after the Taliban takeover.
While Harris’s trip was announced before the bulk of the Taliban’s lightning-fast offensive, which saw the armed group take Kabul on August 15, the situation has added a new dynamic to her trip, leaving Harris to reassure Asian allies that the US remains a reliable partner.
While Singapore is not a US treaty ally, it remains one of its strongest security partners in the region with deep trade ties, while also seeking to balance its relationship with China.
The country is home to the biggest port in Southeast Asia and supports continued free navigation in the area, where China is growing increasingly assertive.
“I reaffirmed in our meeting the United States’ commitment to working with our allies and partners around the Indo Pacific to uphold the rules-based international order, and freedom of navigation, including in the South China Sea,” said Harris, referring to the disputed strategic waterway that is the subject of competing claims by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
Singapore’s Lee said perceptions of US resolve and commitment to the region would be determined by “what the US does going forward, how it repositions itself in the region, how it engages its broad range of friends and partners and allies”.
Cybersecurity, supply chains
The US and Singapore also announced they reached security agreements on Monday that reaffirmed the US presence in the region through “rotational deployments of US P-8 aircraft and littoral combat ships to Singapore”, according to a fact sheet of the meeting shared by the White House.
The two countries also agreed to expand cybersecurity cooperation in the financial sector, the military and enhance information exchange on cyber threats, according to details shared by the White House.
Cybersecurity has risen to the top of the agenda for the Biden administration after a series of high-profile attacks that affected fuel and food supplies in parts of the US.
Other initiatives include starting a US-Singapore dialogue on building supply chains.
The Biden White House is tackling a severe supply shortage of semiconductor chips in the US that has seriously hurt car manufacturers and contributed to inflation.
The countries also struck a partnership to fight COVID-19 and prepare for the next pandemic and agreed to tackle the global climate crisis, promote smart cities and green building standards throughout ASEA, the White House said.