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Vice President Kamala Harris will discuss pressing security issues with leaders in southeast Asia, undertaking a sensitive messaging role for the Biden administration as it steps up efforts to counter China's influence in the region.
In Vietnam and Singapore, Harris will make the case for the Biden administration’s policy in person, granting her a key role in articulating President Joe Biden's policy goals. It also marks the first time a sitting vice president has visited Vietnam, a sign of the importance the White House is placing on the country.
A White House official said Harris’s visit would “emphasize the importance of comprehensive engagement and strategic partnerships — key components of our administration’s approach to foreign policy.” It is her first overseas travel since meeting with leaders in Guatemala and Mexico in June. Harris is also the first Asian-American vice president.
Harris’s meetings with officials, members of the private sector, and civil society leaders will center on the White House’s commitment to bolstering regional security, “as well as international rules and norms, including in the South China Sea,” the official said.
This person noted the administration’s “vision” for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.
Another focus will be on partnerships, including economic ties between the United States, Southeast Asia, and members of the ASEAN union, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The official stressed a fourth focus: “Standing up for our values.”
A statement by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the visit on Tuesday but omitted talk of security issues.
“I look forward to our discussions on strengthening bilateral cooperation and working together on global challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change,” Lee said.
Michael Swaine, director of the Quincy Institute’s East Asia program, praised the Biden administration’s engagement but said pursuing a strategy designed to strengthen countries in the region to resist China “makes a lot of Southeast Asian countries nervous.”
“It’s reinforcing this sense of polarization,” he said.
“They want to see a more sophisticated strategy. They want to see a strategy that recognizes that China is going nowhere,” Swaine added.
Lee addressed the conflict in remarks at the Aspen Security Forum, stating the notion either power could win a zero-sum conflict “is a possible misunderstanding on both sides.”
Lee said Washington is not in total decline, as some Chinese officials believe. By the same token, “China is not going to disappear. This is not the Soviet Union."
“I don’t know whether Americans realize what a formidable adversary they would be taking on if they decide that China is an enemy,” he said.
Biden has made countering China’s diplomatic and military muscle in the region a central focus of his administration, with the president and his top aides framing the tussle in historic terms.
He has warned that Chinese President Xi Jinping is “deadly earnest about becoming the most powerful military force in the world, as well as the largest and most prominent economy in the world by the mid-40s, the 2040s.”
The two countries remain at odds over technology, cybersecurity, and human rights issues. U.S. intelligence officials have accused China’s government of employing cybercriminals to hack American companies.
In the South China Sea, Beijing’s attempts to claim sovereignty have prompted pushback by Washington and other Western nations, with some expanding their presence in the region. Germany on Monday sent a warship to the disputed waterway amid rising tensions.
“There will be periods of uncertainty — perhaps even periods of occasional raised tensions,” said Kurt Campbell, Biden’s Asia czar at the White House, during an event hosted by the Asia Society last month. “Do I believe that China and the United States can coexist peacefully? Yes, I do. But I do think this challenge is going to be enormously difficult for this generation and the next.”
Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator at the National Security Council, said Washington’s position in the region had “slipped.”
“I think we recognize that the United States has a lot of work to do,” he said. “We have historically a strong position in Asia. That position has slipped, and we are at risk, and we need to make substantial investments across the board.”
Biden has sent top Cabinet officials to the region, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, to Japan and South Korea, seeking to rally partners against Beijing’s increasingly coercive tactics. While visiting Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, Austin promised U.S. support against China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea. After visiting Japan, South Korea, and Mongolia, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman traveled to China for high-level face-to-face talks.
Harris’s visit marks the next step in the Biden administration’s campaign.
“The fact that [Harris is] going to Vietnam is a clear signal the United States wants to encourage Vietnam to strengthen its capability to resist Chinese bullying,” Swaine said.
Still, he pointed to Biden’s focus on what the president has reiterated as the most significant issue in international politics today, the confrontation between democracy and authoritarianism.
“There’s Harris in a very authoritarian country, saying, ‘Hey, you’re our pals. For strategic reasons.’”
Swaine added: “I don’t fault her for doing that. But there is some hypocrisy in the U.S. position, of course.”
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Original Author: Katherine Doyle
Original Location: Harris hopes to use Asia trip to counter China's influence in region