In Southeast Asia, Kamala Harris berates China

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SINGAPORE – Vice President Kamala Harris sought to bolster the United States’ image as a credible ally by sternly rebuking China during a speech in Southeast Asia on Tuesday. Its effort comes as the White House faces growing questions about its reliability as an international partner amid continued violence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

“In the South China Sea, we know that Beijing continues to coerce, intimidate and claim the vast majority of the South China Sea,” Harris said in Singapore. She added that China’s “illegal claims” had continued “to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.”

The White House aims to refocus US foreign policy strategy on competing with China’s growing economic influence rather than on the continuation of “eternal wars,” like the two-decade conflict in Afghanistan. The chaotic effort to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul has eclipsed the vice president’s trip, which began in Singapore on Sunday and took her to Vietnam on Tuesday.

Ms Harris’ overseas trip, her second as vice president, took on heightened urgency in the days leading up to her boarding Air Force Two. The trip had been seen as a chance to strengthen economic and security ties with key partners in Singapore and Vietnam, a crucial part of President Biden’s strategy in the South China Sea. But following the haphazard pullout from Afghanistan, her trip became the administration’s first test of the White House’s efforts to reassure the world that it can still be a trusted international partner.

For Harris, that meant reassuring South China Sea countries of the administration’s credibility while questioning whether the United States had abandoned its allies in Afghanistan.

That pressure is likely to increase when Ms Harris has a series of meetings in Hanoi on Wednesday and Thursday. Its main collaborators were confronted with questions about the historical parallel between the American evacuation of American citizens in 1975 from Saigon and the situation in Kabul – filled with scenes of desperate Afghans running behind American military planes, and of American citizens, Afghan allies and their loved ones crammed into Kabul airport and stuck in limbo.

Even the Vice President’s trip to Vietnam from Singapore faced challenges.

His trip to Hanoi was delayed Tuesday evening by more than three hours due to a report of a possible “abnormal health incident”, the term used by the Biden administration to refer to cases of attacks known as the syndrome. Havana, the unexplained headaches, dizziness and memory loss reported by dozens of State Department officials, CIA officers and their families.

Ms Harris’ spokesperson said she was in good health and would be conducting meetings in Hanoi.

And in Singapore, Ms Harris continued her message.

“I stand here because of our commitment to a long-standing relationship, which is a lasting relationship, with the Indo-Pacific region, with the countries of Southeast Asia and, in particular, with Singapore,” said said the vice president a day earlier alongside the prime minister. Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong at a press conference dominated by questions about Afghanistan. She said the administration was “singularly focused” on evacuating US and Afghan allies from the country.

As a sign of the extent of the shadow the situation in Afghanistan had cast on the trip, even Mr. Lee was questioned by one of the two local journalists about the US withdrawal.

“We hope that Afghanistan does not again become an epicenter of terrorism,” Lee said. “And after Afghanistan in the longer term, what matters is how the United States reposition itself in the Asia-Pacific region, engages the wider region and continues the fight against terrorism.”

Ms Harris’ presence has been described by experts as an encouraging sign of the Biden administration’s renewed attention in the South China Sea after several Southeast Asian officials have been frustrated in recent months by the lack of face-to-face engagement from the United States.

The Vice President’s visit comes just weeks after US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin traveled to Singapore, the anchor of the US naval presence in the region, to reassure Asian countries Southeastern administration investment. China has taken advantage of the United States’ absence to woo nations with visits, loans and vaccines against the coronavirus.

Speaking at a press briefing on Tuesday, Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said, “What is happening in Afghanistan now makes it clear to people what rules are being touted by the United States and what the rules are. so-called order of the United States. “

“The United States always tries to use rules and order to justify its selfishness and intimidation,” Wang said. “But now, how many people will believe it?” “

The US administration has attempted to strike a balance in the region by countering Chinese investment without forcing nations to take sides between the two powers. Winking at Singapore’s efforts to remain neutral in the face of rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, Harris said on Tuesday that the United States was not trying to “choose between countries.”

The South China Sea is a major flashpoint between Beijing and several countries in Southeast Asia. Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have all accused China of building and fortifying man-made islands in the region and sending ships to intimidate their military and those who fish.

After Ms Harris met Mr Lee in a closed-door meeting Monday at Istana, Singapore’s presidential palace, the vice president’s office announced a series of deals to tackle climate change, the cybersecurity and the pandemic. The two countries also agreed to increase information sharing on cybersecurity threats to financial markets, cooperate to identify variants of the coronavirus, and convene industry leaders to address chain issues. supply, including a global shortage of semiconductors used to build cars and computers that has been of concern to the Biden administration.

Curtis S. Chin, former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007 to 2011, said these commitments go no further.

“This is, of course, an important symbolic trip, but the reality is that what is more important than these trips is what happens in between,” Chin said. “This is why for me what happened in Afghanistan is so important because the reality of American behavior undermines the rhetoric of American behavior.”

Mr. Chin added, “Our rhetoric is, ‘We’ve been here for a long time. We are unwavering in our commitment. The reality is, as Asia well knows from Vietnam to Afghanistan, rhetoric and reality often don’t match. “

Ms Harris ran into rhetoric on her own on her first trip abroad, to Guatemala and Mexico, which was meant to tackle the factors pushing migrants to flee to the United States, but was instead marred by domestic policy. Her efforts to advocate for Central American institutions that aim to root out corruption – a factor pushing vulnerable families to migrate to the United States in record numbers – were overshadowed by her blunt answers on whether she would surrender. at the US-Mexico border.

“I’ve never been to Europe,” Ms. Harris told NBC presenter Lester Holt. “I don’t understand the point you are making.”

David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to former President Barack Obama, said Ms Harris was facing increased criticism because she was clearly a candidate in the next presidential election.

“She is relatively new, does not have that experience, so she will be closely watched on these trips,” Mr Axelrod said of his foreign policy record. “And the situation in Afghanistan has only added to its burden.”

But the trip to Southeast Asia also provided Ms Harris with the opportunity to address an issue at the center of a rare political consensus in Washington, according to Aaron Connelly, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. .

“Unlike Central America, it is a region of strategic opportunities and opportunities,” said Mr. Connelly. “There is broad political agreement in the United States to deal with the rise of China, and this is where you would do that.”

Sui-lee wee contributed reports.

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