The Latest on Southeast Asia: September 2, 2021

Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Singapore and Vietnam. It was the second cabinet-level visit to those two countries in just over a month, following Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip in late July. However, U.S. coverage of Harris’s trip to Southeast Asia largely focused on events in another part of the world: Afghanistan. Speaking at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore, the vice president said she had gone ahead with the trip despite the chaotic evacuation in Kabul as “a reaffirmation of our commitment to our membership in the Indo-Pacific region, our longstanding partnerships with Southeast Asia, and a longstanding relationship with Singapore.” When Prime Minister Lee was asked whether the withdrawal from Afghanistan changed his calculus on U.S. reliability as a security and economic partner, he said, “What will influence perceptions of U.S. resolve and commitment to the region will be what the U.S. does going forward.”

Prime Minister Lee’s focus on the future of U.S. engagement in Asia rather than the withdrawal from Afghanistan was reflected in regional press coverage. Unlike U.S. counterparts, Southeast Asian media reports about the trip largely focused on the U.S. strategic and economic initiatives that came out of the meetings. In a speech at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, Harris announced that the United States would offer to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2023. She stuck to a positive message about partnerships rather than focusing on China, sticking with the tone seen in Secretary Austin’s earlier trip and the virtual engagements of Secretary Antony Blinken with Southeast Asian counterparts. The lone exception came from her strong condemnation of Chinese coercion in the South China Sea. During her visit, the two sides also established a U.S.-Singapore Climate Partnership, a dialogue on supply chain resiliency, and three agency-level bilateral cybersecurity agreements.

After a three-hour delay due to two suspected cases of “Havana syndrome” affecting U.S. diplomats in Hanoi, the vice president flew on to Vietnam. There Harris met with President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan, and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. She expressed the United States’ desire to formally elevate the relationship to a “strategic partnership,” reiterating a message reportedly delivered by Secretary Austin a month earlier. During a press conference, Harris largely reiterated the message about partnerships, and Chinese bad behavior in the South China Sea. She also pressed the government on human rights while reaffirming “respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and political regime”—an effort to assure Vietnam’s Communist leaders that the United States does not seek regime change. On the economic front, Vietnam agreed to eliminate or reduce tariffs on imports of U.S. corn, wheat, and pork—a potential step toward narrowing the ballooning bilateral trade deficit.

Overall, Harris’s trip was received positively in the region and built on the momentum that started with Austin’s visits a month earlier. Showing high level commitment to the region is all the more critical given the concerns about U.S. credibility and competence raised in Afghanistan. The administration still has to show it can lead on regional and global challenges, particularly by increasing vaccine deliveries. And it needs to come up with a real economic strategy if it hopes for long-term success. But the vice president’s trip did what it needed to: it bought some goodwill and a little more time for the Biden team to prove it has a workable Indo-Pacific strategy.

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