US vice president faces task of convincing Southeast Asia of US reliability amid its chaotic pullout from Afghanistan.
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.
But experts say Harris, whose trip begins Sunday, will have to contend with questions over US dependability following its chaotic pullout from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s lightning takeover of the country.
Reuters news agency quoted a US official saying that Harris’s trip 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”.
Concerns about the outcome in Afghanistan could muddy that message, however.
“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 evacuations from Kabul evoked images of the US’s 1975 withdrawal from Vietnam, whose Communist-ruled government Washington sought to isolate for 20 years after the Vietnam War, but with which it now enjoys warm ties given shared concerns about China.
Harris is expected to visit Vietnam late on Tuesday and will be the first US vice president to visit Vietnam.
Vietnam has been a vocal opponent of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea while Singapore shares concerns about Beijing’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region.
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.
A White House official, who asked not to be named, told AFP Southeast Asia remains “strategically important and economically important to this country” given China’s dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.
The official added: “That hasn’t changed with Afghanistan.”
The 10-country region is a growing battleground for influence between the US and China, and Washington has repeatedly criticised Beijing’s expansive claims to almost the entire South China Sea.
Four Southeast Asian states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – as well as Taiwan have overlapping claims with Beijing in the flashpoint sea, home to key shipping lanes.
“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 Vietnamese 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.