The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has heightened the importance of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tour of Southeast Asia, where she will try to reassure allies of American resolve following the chaotic end of a two-decade war.
The trip, which begins on Friday and includes stops in Singapore and Vietnam, will give Harris a platform to assert herself more directly in foreign affairs. She will have opportunities to reaffirm what she and President Joe Biden consider to be core American values, such as human rights. This is especially important in light of concerns about the future of women and girls in Afghanistan now that the Taliban has retaken power.
However, there are significant risks. Harris, a former senator and former district attorney, is largely inexperienced in international diplomacy and foreign policy. Her visit to Vietnam could evoke unfavorable comparisons between the humiliating withdrawal of US troops from the country in 1975 and the tumultuous effort to evacuate Americans and allies from Afghanistan this week. And it’s all taking place in the shadow of China, whose growing influence has some US policymakers concerned.
Harris struggled at times during her first major trip abroad, which took her to Guatemala and Mexico in June. Her unequivocal warning to migrants not to come to the United States enraged some progressive Democrats while doing little to appease Republican critics who said the administration was not doing enough to address an increase in border crossings.
When she arrives in Singapore, the anchor of the United States’ naval presence in Southeast Asia, she will have a new opportunity to make a global impression.
On Monday, Harris will speak by phone with Singapore President Halimah Yacob, attend a bilateral meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and deliver remarks about a US combat ship visiting Singapore. On Tuesday, she will deliver a speech outlining the United States’ vision for engagement in the region, as well as take part in a supply chain event with business leaders.
Harris then travels to Vietnam, a country with strategic and symbolic significance for the United States. Leaders there have echoed US concerns about neighboring China’s rise and the potential threat it poses to global security. But it’s also a country etched in American history as the site of another bloody, costly war that ended in ignominy.
When she takes questions from the press during a joint press conference with the prime minister in Singapore on Monday, the vice president will almost certainly address that parallel. It’s a potentially awkward position for Harris because, in July, Biden explicitly rejected comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam, stating that there would be “no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy” in Afghanistan, a reference to historic images of a helicopter evacuating a US embassy in Saigon in 1975.
While the chaotic end of the Afghan war has dominated Washington in recent days, China may be a higher priority for Harris’ visit. Biden has prioritized countering Chinese influence around the world in his foreign policy. Relations between the United States and China deteriorated dramatically under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, and the two countries remain at odds on a variety of issues, including technology, cybersecurity, and human rights.
Instead, analysts believe Harris will concentrate on trade issues during her trip. The White House is considering a new digital trade agreement with the region, which would allow for the free flow of data and provide opportunities for U.S. companies to collaborate on emerging technologies in a rapidly growing region of the world.
And COVID-19 is bound to be on everyone’s mind in two countries with starkly divergent virus trends. Singapore has only had a few dozen pandemic-related deaths, has a relatively high vaccination rate, and is preparing to ease travel and economic restrictions this fall. Meanwhile, Vietnam is dealing with coronavirus infections at an all-time high, owing to the delta variant and low vaccination rates.
During her visit to Vietnam, Harris plans to hold a virtual meeting with ASEAN health ministers and promote the opening of a regional CDC office. According to Gregory Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Harris’ trip is critical for demonstrating a commitment to the region on the coronavirus pandemic.