US Vice President Kamala Harris has accused China of using “coercion” and “intimidation” to back unlawful claims in the South China Sea as she sought to rally Asian countries against Beijing and shore up US credibility in the wake of a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Her comments on Tuesday came during a seven-day trip to Singapore and Vietnam that is aimed at standing up to China’s growing security and economic influence globally.
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The US has called rivalry with China “the biggest geopolitical test” of the century and is diverting attention and resources to the Indo-Pacific region as it turns away from old security preoccupations, including with the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan.
“We know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” Harris said in her speech in Singapore.
“Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations,” she said.
“The United States stands with our allies and partners in the face of these threats.”
China claims almost all of the resource-rich sea, through which trillions of dollars in shipping trade passes annually, with competing claims from four Southeast Asian states as well as Taiwan.
Beijing has been accused of deploying a range of military hardware, including anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles there, and ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision at The Hague that declared its historical claim over most of the waters to be without basis.
Tensions have escalated in recent months between Beijing and rival claimants.
Manila was angered after hundreds of Chinese boats were spotted inside the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, while Malaysia scrambled fighter jets to intercept Chinese military aircraft that appeared off its coast.
The US Navy meanwhile regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” operations through the disputed waters, which China objects to, saying they do not help promote peace or stability.
In recent months, US President Joe Biden’s administration has ramped up outreach to the region, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Austin both visiting the area. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a number of virtual meetings with Southeast Asian officials earlier this month.
Harris said the region was “critically important to our nation’s security and prosperity”, adding that “our partnerships in Singapore, in Southeast Asia and throughout the Indo-Pacific are a top priority for the United States”.
She also sought to allay fears that growing US-China tensions could force countries who have strong ties with both of the world’s top economies to choose sides.
“Our engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country, nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries,” she said.
Part of Harris’s task during the trip will be convincing leaders in the region that the US commitment to Southeast Asia is firm and not a parallel to Afghanistan.
The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, however, complicated that message of support to the region, raising questions about the US commitment to its allies. While Biden said last week that an indefinite engagement would have benefitted “true strategic competitors” China and Russia, China has seized on the images of violence from the evacuation to slam the US for its engagement there.
In Tuesday’s speech, Harris defended Biden’s decision to push ahead with the US pullout from Afghanistan as “courageous and right” and reiterated that US officials were “laser-focused” on the evacuation from Kabul airport.
She also said the US had put itself forward to host a meeting of the Asia-Pacific trade group APEC in 2023, which includes the US, China and Japan.
Vietnam trip briefly delayed
After the speech Tuesday, Harris held a roundtable discussion with business leaders on supply chain issues. And after a delay of several hours that her staff refused to explain, Harris departed for Vietnam, the trip’s second and final stop. She meets with top Vietnamese officials on Wednesday.
The cause of the delay was a reported case of the so-called Havana Syndrome, according to an administration official not authorized to speak publicly about an ongoing investigation. The person potentially afflicted was not immediately identified.
The US Embassy in Hanoi issued a statement saying the delay was because Harris’ office learned about a report of a “recent possible anomalous health incident” in the Vietnamese capital. The embassy provided no details, but said Harris’ office decided to travel to Hanoi “after careful assessment.”
The US government uses “anomalous health incident” to describe the syndrome, a rash of mysterious health incidents first reported by American diplomats and other government employees in Havana, Cuba, beginning in 2016. Some of those impacted report hearing a loud piercing sound and feeling intense pressure in the face. Pain, nausea, and dizziness sometimes followed.
Similar, unexplained health ailments have since been reported by Americans serving in other countries. Administration officials have speculated that Russia may be involved, a suggestion Moscow has denied.