Vice President Harris’ Trip to Southeast Asia is Well-Timed…and Overdue

On August 22, Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Singapore on the first leg of a trip to Southeast Asia. After meeting with Singaporean leaders, Vice President Harris traveled to Vietnam. Her second international trip since taking office is designed to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to the geopolitically important region. Central to this reaffirmation is the Biden administration’s efforts to deepen U.S. engagement in the face of China’s growing global influence. Deeper engagement with the governments in the region is increasingly important to the United States’ long-term interests in the Indo-Pacific as China looks to gain more influence, particularly in the South China Sea.

The Indo-Pacific region has long been one of strategic importance to the United States. Early in his time in the White House, President Barack Obama introduced a shift in U.S. foreign policy, referred to as the pivot to Asia. This pivot was intended to “directly engage[ing] China, prop[ping] up Chinese rivals Japan and India, and figure[ing] out the North Korea situation” while transitioning  away from the U.S.-led wars in the Middle East. Of particular interest is the South China Sea, a primary source of tension between China, which has built up its naval presence and military capabilities in the sea, and several countries in Southeast Asia, which has competing claims.  Following his former boss’s policy, Biden is working to shift U.S. foreign policy away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into a new era focused primarily on Asia and, specifically, the great power rivalry with China. As a piece of the Biden administration’s broader Asia strategy and in light of recent events in the region and worldwide, Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast is well-timed and overdue.

Stop Ignoring Us!

The countries in Southeast Asia embraced the news of Vice President Harris’ trip to the region. Several countries have expressed disappointment over the lack of engagement from the Biden administration. In fact, the United States’ allies and partners in Southeast Asia were largely ignored by the Trump administration. For Biden, who has promised to work with American allies, Southeast Asia feels very much left out of that promise, as the countries in Southeast Asia “hardly figure on Biden’s diplomatic agenda.” In the first several months of Biden’s tenure, his foreign policy has focused primarily on countering China and on U.S. treaty allies, including Japan and South Korea. However, as President Biden is quickly realizing, the countries in Southeast Asia are critical to his overall foreign policy objective: countering China. Thus, Vice President Harris’ trip to Vietnam and Singapore was well-timed and, one could argue, overdue.

The Afghan Withdrawal Reaches Throughout the Region

The abrupt U.S. withdrawal and difficulties in safely evacuating U.S. citizens and Afghan allies from Afghanistan has caused much of the world to question the United States’ credibility and reliability as an international partner. Much like the United States’ North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies who fought alongside the United State throughout the entire war, the United States’ allies and partners in Asia are also asking this question.

Washington’s perception is that the countries in Southeast Asia have gradually drifted away from the United States in favor of closer ties with China. This fear is compounded by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, with accusations that the United States has abandoned its NATO allies but also triggered criticism that the United States also left its Afghan allies, those who worked with and for the U.S. government during the war, high and dry. Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast Asia is well-timed, as well as overdue, as it presents an opportunity for the United States to quell its allies and partners concerns about U.S. reliability and reassure the region that the United States is deeply committed to its security and prosperity in its efforts to counter China, which is a lynchpin of Biden’s foreign policy.

And then there was China…

Lastly, Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast Asia is a play in the Biden administration’s playbook for reorienting U.S. foreign policy toward the great power rivalry with China. In fact, the primary reason behind the abrupt and bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan was so the Biden administration may do just that: focus on what President Biden has referred to as the United States’ primary national security threat. Countering growing China’s expansion into the region, including the South China Sea, remains one of the Biden administration’s top priorities and is a central piece into the United States’ broader Asia strategy. By traveling to the region, Vice President Harris is laying the groundwork for broadening that strategy, and the first step is to reassure the United States’ allies and partners in the region as they will prove to be critical to the United States’ efforts to counter China.

Conclusion

Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast Asia was a necessary and strategically timed trip. U.S. allies and partners in the region have expressed frustration over the lack of one-on-one engagement since Biden took office. Additionally, the abrupt and chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan prompted many across the world, including allies and partners in Southeast Asia, to question U.S. reliability and credibility. Moreover, the Biden administration has placed China at the center of his foreign policy, which greatly impacts the Southeast Asian region. As a result, it was imperative that the United States reassure its Southeast Asian allies and partners of the Biden administration’s commitment to the region and the strategic importance these countries play in U.S. foreign policy.

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