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In Afghanistan’s Shadow, US Vice President to Embark for Southeast Asia

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In Afghanistan’s Shadow, US Vice President to Embark for Southeast Asia

Kamala Harris’ visits to Singapore and Vietnam are intended to send the message that “America is back.” But will the message stick?

In Afghanistan’s Shadow, US Vice President to Embark for Southeast Asia

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, after receiving her second dose of COVID-19 vaccine on January 26, 2021.

Credit: NIH/Chiachi Chang

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will depart on Sunday for a two-nation trip to Southeast Asia, as the Biden administration seeks to rally the region to counter China’s growing global influence.

The trip, which begins Sunday and will include stops in Singapore and Vietnam, is intended to show that the United States is in the region “to stay,” according to an unnamed senior administration official quoted by Reuters. In a statement, Harris’ office similarly said that the purpose of the trip would be to demonstrate that “America is back” in what it described as “a critically important region in the world.”

Harris will be the most senior U.S. official to visit Southeast Asia since President Joe Biden took office in January. After a belated start in which it focused on relations with other partners like Japan, India, and Australia, the Biden administration beginning to ramp up its engagement with Southeast Asia.

Harris’ visit follows Southeast Asian tours by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, while the U.S. has also ramped up its vaccine diplomacy to the region. As of August 2, Washington had donated a total of 24 million doses of vaccine, around a fifth of its total donations globally, and tens of millions of dollars in personal protective equipment, laboratory equipment, and other supplies to fight COVID-19.

While in Singapore, Harris will meet with President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and deliver remarks on a U.S. combat ship visiting Singapore. According to Bloomberg, she will also hold a meeting to discuss supply chain issues with representatives from the private sector and government. During her stop in Vietnam, Harris is scheduled to meet with President Ngyuen Xuan Phuc and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, and tout the launch of a regional office of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The purpose for Harris’ visit, like these previous tours, is to seek support for the Biden administration’s goal of countering China’s growing global influence. According to Reuters, Harris will focus on defending international rules in the South China Sea, strengthening U.S. regional leadership, and expanding security cooperation with Singapore and Vietnam. “The administration is … making clear that we have an enduring commitment to this region, that we’re part of the Indo-Pacific and in the region to stay,” the administration official told the news agency.

The unplanned subtext to Harris’ trip, however, will be the shambolic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ignominious collapse of Washington’s $1 trillion nation-building project there. This will require her, even if only for U.S. domestic political purposes, to make a show of U.S. resolve – most likely by talking tough on China.

For Southeast Asian governments, however, the likely impacts of the Afghanistan withdrawal will be minimal. In terms of U.S. resolve and reputation, there is little meaningful comparison to be drawn between Washington’s perhaps inevitable abandonment of its star-crossed Afghan nation-building project – a venture that was never blessed with clear aims – and its desire to defend allies and partners in Asia. Indeed, many will probably view the U.S. withdrawal as a sign that it is willing to make difficult trade-offs: the essence of sound strategy.

Indeed, the main lesson that Southeast Asian nations may take out of the debacle in Kabul, as John Harley Breen argues in an article in The Diplomat today, is that for all the differences between Biden and Trump, the U.S. government will ultimately privilege its own interests over those of its partners and allies. And herein lies the main question: if the U.S. is in Southeast Asia “to stay,” on what exactly does it plan to do there? While the region’s governments desire a robust U.S. engagement in the region, they differ markedly on the exact focus of that engagement. U.S. and Southeast Asian interests align – but only up to a point.

For one thing, the region has resisted buying into the Cold War framing of its competition with China as a showdown between “democracy” and “authoritarianism.” Each Southeast Asian nation has its problems with China, including four that directly dispute Beijing’s expansive claims to the South China Sea. But none, bar a portion of the deeply Americanized Philippine political and security establishment, are inclined to view the challenge in such stark terms.

Another not unrelated factor is that Southeast Asian nations do quite well economically from their relationship with China and are reluctant to sacrifice this by being drawn into a struggle between the superpowers. This is especially the case in the context of the region’s current COVID-19 maelstrom, which has only underlined the importance of China to the region’s future economic health – a message that Chinese diplomats have spared no energy in emphasizing over the past year.

In order to build on the considerable areas of common interest that exist, the U.S. should therefore ensure that its engagement with Southeast Asia is treated as more than a mere subsidiary of its China policy, and responds more directly to the region’s most pressing concerns. As Gregory Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Associated Press, support for the region’s COVID-19 recovery should be at the top of Harris’ agenda.

“The administration realizes that this is the singular issue,” he told the news agency. “If they’re not seen as leading vaccine distribution in the region, then nothing else they do in Asia matters, or at least nothing else they do is going to find a willing audience.”

Even if it succeeds on this front – and it has already made significant donations of vaccines and other COVID-19-related aid – Washington faces another, longer-term challenge. The fact of the matter is that a nation that is truly permanently engaged shouldn’t see the need to say so, and the Biden administration’s “America is back” mantra that will always be shadowed by the possibility that its successor, especially if it is helmed by a Republican in the mold of Donald Trump (if not Trump himself), might abruptly change course.