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U.S. is still a ‘global leader,’ Harris says on Asia trip, as allies fret over China, Afghanistan

Vice President Harris speaks in Singapore on Monday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Successive U.S. administrations have pledged to pivot away from unending military entanglements and focus American foreign policy on the Indo-Pacific, where a string of nations are anxious about China’s growing military clout and hungry for U.S. engagement.

A question facing the Biden administration is how far it will be able to do that — and maintain credibility among American allies alarmed by the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan and fresh memories of chaotic diplomacy under President Donald Trump. Vice President Harris’s visit to Singapore and Vietnam this week, only her second foray internationally, is emerging as a test of Washington’s ability not just to lead the way but also to counter an increasingly aggressive Beijing.

“The current narrative now is that America is withdrawing, which puts even more pressure on her trip,” said Huong Le Thu, a nonresident fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The United States “needs a win,” she added.

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Harris’s visit officially began Monday, when she met Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In a meeting that lasted more than an hour, the two discussed deepening economic engagement, shoring up supply chains, the launch of a new climate partnership between their countries, expanded cybersecurity cooperation and other matters.

“The reason I am here is because the United States is a global leader, and we take that role seriously,” Harris said at a news conference with Lee. The initiatives, she added, “speak, I believe, volumes in terms of the integrity of the relationships the United States has around the world.”

Harris on Tuesday is scheduled to deliver a speech on Washington’s Indo-Pacific policy. A senior Biden administration official, speaking to reporters ahead of Harris’s meetings Monday, said that Southeast Asia “was important before recent developments in Afghanistan; it’s important now; and it’s going to remain important, as is the broader Indo-Pacific.”

“We’re pursuing the deepening of these partnerships for economic and security interests, and global health interests, and much more,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under White House ground rules.

Singapore was one of the countries that had deployed personnel to Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force, beginning in 2007 and withdrawing the forces in 2013. The second stop on Harris’s tour is Vietnam, whose shadow hangs over the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Vietnam has grown closer to the United States, with both sharing concerns over China’s actions in the South China Sea. (Vietnam fought a war with China in 1979 and has overlapping maritime claims with Beijing.)

China’s state media, which has mocked the United States over the chaotic events in Afghanistan, noted that Harris’s visit came at an “embarrassing” time for Washington.

“The U.S.’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan has triggered changes in the country’s situation. This is creating a crisis of confidence among U.S. allies and partners,” Zhang Tengjun, assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, wrote in the state-run Global Times newspaper.

Both countries on Harris’s itinerary are looking for firm and tangible commitments from the vice president, analysts say, particularly deeper economic commitments and, in Vietnam’s case, stronger defense ties.

Harris on Monday also visited Changi Naval Base and toured the USS Tulsa, a littoral combat ship, where she spoke to American sailors, thanking them for their service and acknowledging the emotion they must feel watching the events unfolding in Afghanistan.

“At the same time, other missions continue all around the world,” she added. “So you all are here in Singapore, and Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific, with the mission of your own, a mission that is vital to the American people.”

Singapore grants the United States access to its military facilities and is an anchor for American naval presence in the region. This, however, is not a permanent base, with Singapore treading carefully in its relationships with the United States and China.

Some of the partnerships announced Monday in Singapore came without a specific start date, or were nonbinding memorandums of understanding. Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore who studies U.S.-China competition in the region, said the developments were “incremental.”

Pledges to work together on climate change and supply chains “sound nice, but it’s the substance rather than the sticker and packaging that matters, especially at this moment,” he said. “Think about the promises made to Afghanistan from last year.”

Harris and Lee also discussed Myanmar, where more than 1,000 people have been killed by security forces since the military seized power in a coup on Feb. 1. In the news conference, Harris said the United States wants to see democracy restored in Myanmar. Neither leader provided specifics on how their countries would address the situation, which has deteriorated into a major humanitarian crisis that could destabilize the region, already pummeled by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Lee, in response to questions from reporters, pushed back on the idea that the United States has become an unreliable partner. He said his country, as an ally, would be deploying a multi-role tanker transport plane to help in the evacuation of Afghan citizens.

Countries “have to adjust their position from time to time,” Lee said. “Sometimes it can be done smoothly, sometimes there are hiccups, sometimes things go awry and take time to put right.”

Still, he added, “Singapore hopes and works on the basis that the U.S. will continue to . . . engage with the region for many more years to come.”

Analysts, though, note the Biden administration’s repeated indications that its priorities are domestic, which also colors the actions in Afghanistan. The success of Harris’s trip, Chong said, will rest on her ability to prove that Washington has the “political will and resources” to follow through on statements and announcements.

“Regional allies, partners and even rivals need to be convinced that the United States is able to devote time, energy, resources and attention to Asia, even as it tries to get its own house in order,” he said.

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