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Harris faces task of convincing Asia of US reliability after Afghan chaos

  • Published at 06:04 am August 20th, 2021
US Vice President Kamala Harris
File photo: US Vice President Kamala Harris discusses the US Senate's passage of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, during a meeting in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, US, August 10, 2021 Reuters

Harris' trip aims to establish deeper ties with Southeast Asia, a region Washington considers key to checking Chinese expansion

Vice President Kamala Harris, in a visit to Singapore and Vietnam next week that aims to counter China's growing influence, will have to contend with a new problem: the collapse of Afghanistan, which has left allies questioning the credibility of US foreign policy promises.

US allies have complained they were not fully consulted on President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by August 31, which appeared at odds with his promises to recommit to global engagement.

With the Taliban's rapid takeover putting their national security interests at risk, countries in both Europe and Asia are wondering whether they can rely on Washington to fulfill long-standing security commitments, experts say.

Harris' trip aims to establish deeper ties with Southeast Asia, a region Washington considers key to checking Chinese expansion. A senior White House official told Reuters this month the vice president's focus would be on defending international rules in the South China Sea, strengthening US regional leadership and expanding security cooperation.

Regional experts like Murray Hiebert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies said Harris would have to try to reassure her hosts that Washington's commitment to Southeast Asia is firm and not a parallel to Afghanistan.

"The debacle in Afghanistan will prompt concerns again about US staying power and keeping promises to allies," he said.

The chaotic evacuations from Kabul have evoked images of the 1975 US withdrawal from Vietnam, whose Communist-ruled government Washington sought to isolate for two decades after the Vietnam War, but with which it now enjoys warm ties given shared concerns about China.

A senior administration official said Harris' trip would show that the United States was in the region "to stay," but concerns about the outcome in Afghanistan could muddy that message.

"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."

"And of course there's China trying to capitalize on that narrative."

Vietnam has been a vocal opponent of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and Singapore shares concerns about Beijing's increasingly assertive behavior in the region.

They and other Southeast Asian countries have welcomed the US military presence there given China's militarization of the South China Sea and its vast coast guard and fishing fleet.

The US Navy has maintained a steady pattern of freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea and near Taiwan, but those appear to have done little to discourage Beijing.

The senior administration official said Washington was confident the United States' Indo-Pacific allies saw it as a "steadfast partner" and Harris would emphasize that on her trip.

Silver lining?

The official said Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific were priorities for the Biden administration and "that hasn't changed with Afghanistan."

"There's a difference between ensuring open sea lanes in Asia, which is a priority for the United States, and the continued involvement in another country's civil war," he said.

At the same time, he said, Harris would continue to work on issues tied to Afghanistan during her trip, adding: "We can do more than one thing at a time."

Some experts point to a silver lining for Southeast Asia from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying it will enable Washington to free up resources from a counterterrorism mission and focus more on countering Beijing.

"The shift to deterring and preparing for a conflict with a near-peer competitor will be accelerated as the counterterrorism mindset recedes," said Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, referring to China.

Others warn that the chaos in Kabul could at least delay that shift.

Harris is due in Singapore on Sunday and will become the first US vice president to visit Vietnam when she arrives there on Tuesday. She departs Vietnam two days later.

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