Harris took up the challenge even Obama couldn’t flip
US Vice President Kamala Harris just completed a four-day visit to Singapore and Vietnam. The Vice President appeared to be much better prepared this time, than her trip to South America earlier this year. She undertook the trip without being taken to task by the US right-wing media.
The Harris visit timing was extremely unfortunate, leading to speculation that it may have been cancelled. It went ahead with the drama of evacuations from the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, taking focus off her trip. This forced the Vice President to start all her press conferences with a summary and comment about the situation in Afghanistan, before reporting on any achievements from her meetings with Singaporean and Vietnamese leaders.
The Vice President’s trip was intended to capitalize on the Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s visit to Singapore and Vietnam a few weeks prior to her visit. The Biden administration’s focus on the region has been intense over the last few months with deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman’s visit to Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand, and secretary of state Antony Blinkin’s participation in ASEAN ministerial forums.
Before the Harris visit, the US administration had donated Covid-19 vaccines to most countries within the region, in what has be described as vaccine diplomacy. The competition between the US and China has become overtly competitive with China on the eve of the Harris visit to Vietnam announcing they would donate another 2 million doses of vaccine to Vietnam, some one-upmanship on the US vaccine donation.
The major objective of the Vice President’s visit to Singapore and Vietnam was to work on the Biden doctrine deliverables to the region. The Biden doctrine was outlined by Secretary Austin in Singapore at the Fullerton Lecture, last month. This doctrine devised by Kurt Michael Campbell and a State Department think tank, emphasises security, cooperation, freedom of navigation, a rules-based order, and a values-based approach to partnerships and mutual cooperation.
In Singapore with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a joint press conference, a list of new initiatives were outlined on the joint podium. These included a focus on climate change, cyber security, developing resilient supply chains, particularly for semi-conductors, and cooperation on health and security. This looked transactional at best, especially given the pre-existing deep relationship, especially on military matters.
As a gracious host the Singapore Prime Minister Lee was silent when Harris singled out China’s aggressiveness on the South China Sea.
Singaporeans in general have a respect for China, particularly with clan, family, and economic relationships with the nation. Consequently, Singapore didn’t want to appear to be jumping into a détente, with “Cold War” undertones, with the condemnation of Chinese behaviour.
The Harris China narrative seems to have drifted away from the Biden doctrine, where Austin himself while in Singapore said that nations of the region are not expected to have to choose between the US and China. Singapore was not flustered by the Harris rhetoric which was seen as having no constructive purpose from their point of view.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin rebuked Harris, saying that the US so called rules-based order is a way to arbitrarily interfere militarily in a sovereign nation without being held responsible for the suffering of its people.
In Vietnam, Harris once again singled out China, referring to China’s bullying and intimidation with maritime claims on the South China Sea. Harris wanted to persuade Vietnam to pressure China on this issue, which Vietnam was very unenthusiastic about.
Another cornerstone of the Biden doctrine is the values-based approach to cooperation and relationships within the region, especially the issue of human rights. Myanmar, or Burma as the US still refers to the country, came up in discussions. However, Harris was criticized as being soft on Vietnam which had been criticized in the treatment of dissidents.
Vice President Harris while in Vietnam launched the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, South-East Asia Regional Office in Hanoi, the rest was rhetoric and symbolism.
On her final day in Singapore, Harris visited US troops at Changi Naval base and went aboard the USS Tulsa. In Hanoi, Harris visited a war memorial, and laid flowers, where the late US senator John McCain’s plane was shot down during the Vietnam War.
It was rumoured that a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) would be signed when Vice President Harris was in Hanoi. This did not happen. This could be seen as a subtle sign that Vietnam is not ready to carry the designation of a strategic relationship with Washington, which is what the US really wanted.
Just before Harris arrived in Hanoi, the Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Minh Chinh met with the Chinese Ambassador to Vietnam Xiong Bo to reinforce the message that Vietnam doesn’t align itself with any one country against the other.
Part of the Harris narrative was deeply flawed. Her emphasis on the role of ASEAN doesn’t take the realties of the organization into account. ASEAN is really a very lose organization, neglected by now reluctant members, who compromise so much, any communique has no tangible actionable meaning. Talks about ASEAN complementing the Quad is no more than a diplomatic illusion, with no actionable reality behind it. The Vice President was so vague when giving examples of possible areas of cooperation, that making any ASEAN-Quad relationship a cornerstone in the region looks almost impossible as a strategic realty.
The Kamala Harris visit to Singapore came off without any hitches, reinforcing the close relationship between the two countries. However, what was important during this visit is what was not said by Singapore. Singapore has no intention of going into “Cold War” narratives of China, a neighbour in the hemisphere they must co-exist with.
Kamala Harris didn’t make any major breakthroughs in Vietnam either. However, it must be said, none were really expected.
What is probably notable are the countries not on the Harris itinerary, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The Biden value-based approach espoused within the South-East Asian doctrine could paint the US in a corner with Thailand with the current political situation, if the US wants to be consistent with the stand on Myanmar.
For the Biden doctrine generally, it’s difficult to see where the US can win any breakthroughs to prove efficacy. The recent diplomatic flurry has brought some transactional successes, but hasn’t really pushed US interests any further forward than the Obama era.
For Harris herself, she came through unscathed. However, there is a lot more work for Kurt Campbell and his think tank to do to enable the Biden South-East Asia doctrine to achieve positive outcomes.