Successive US administrations have pledged to pivot away from entanglements in the Middle East and focus American foreign policy on the Indo-Pacific, where a string of nations are anxious about China’s growing military clout and hungry for US engagement.
A question facing Joe Biden’s administration is how it will be able to do that and maintain credibility among US allies alarmed by the collapse of the US-backed government in Afghanistan, and with memories of chaotic diplomacy under former president Donald Trump still fresh.
Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to Singapore and Vietnam this week – only her second international trip – is emerging as a test of Washington’s ability not just to lead but counter an increasingly aggressive Beijing.
“The current narrative is that America is withdrawing, which puts even more pressure on her trip,” said Huong Le Thu, a non-resident fellow with the Southeast Asia Programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “[The US] needs a win.”
Ms Harris’s visit officially began yesterday, when she met Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
In a bilateral meeting that lasted more than an hour, the two discussed issues including deepening economic engagement, shoring up supply chains, the launch of a new climate partnership between the United States and Singapore, and expanded cyber-security co-operation.
“The reason I am here is because the United States is a global leader, and we take that role seriously,” Ms Harris said in a joint news conference with Mr Lee.
The initiatives, Ms Harris added, “speak, I believe, volumes in terms of the integrity of the relationships the United States has around the world”.
Ms Harris is scheduled to deliver a speech today on Washington’s Indo-Pacific policy. A senior administration official said Southeast Asia “was important before recent developments in Afghanistan; it’s important now, and it’s going to remain important, as is the broader Indo-Pacific”.
“We’re pursuing the deepening of these partnerships for economic and security interests, and global health interests, and much more,” the official said.
Singapore was one of the countries that deployed personnel to Afghanistan. It took part in the International Security Assistance Force from 2007, withdrawing forces in 2013.
Vietnam, the second stop on Ms Harris’s trip, has obvious echoes of the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, but has grown closer to the United States out of shared concerns over China’s actions in the South China Sea.
China’s state media, which has mocked the United States over the chaotic events in Afghanistan, noted Ms Harris’s visit came at an “embarrassing” time.
“The US’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan has triggered changes in the country’s situation. This is creating a crisis of confidence among US allies and partners,” Zhang Tengjun, assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, wrote.
Both countries on Ms Harris’s itinerary are looking for firm and tangible commitments from the vice president, particularly deeper economic commitment and, in Vietnam’s case, stronger defence ties.
Some of the partnerships announced yesterday in Singapore came without a specific start date, or were non-binding memorandums of understanding.
Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore who studies US-China competition in the region, said the developments were “incremental”.
Pledges to work together on climate change and supply chains “sound nice, but it’s the substance rather than the sticker and packaging that matters, especially at this moment,” he said. “Think about the promises made to Afghanistan from last year.”
The success of the trip, Mr Chong said, will rest on Ms Harris’s ability to prove Washington has the “political will and resources” to follow through on statements and announcements. (© Washington Post)
© Washington Post