In Asia, Kamala Harris must prove US reliability after Afghan chaos

Washington: US Vice-President Kamala Harris, in a visit to Singapore and Vietnam that aims to counter China’s growing influence, will have to contend with a new problem: the collapse of Afghanistan, which has left allies questioning the credibility of US foreign policy promises.

Allies have complained they were not fully consulted on President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by August 31, which appeared at odds with his promises to recommit to global engagement.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris arrives in Singapore on Sunday.Credit:AP

With the Taliban’s rapid takeover putting their national security interests at risk, countries in both Europe and Asia are wondering whether they can rely on Washington to fulfil long-standing security commitments, experts say.

Harris’ trip starts on Sunday. It aims to establish deeper ties with south-east Asia, a region Washington considers key to checking Chinese expansion. A senior White House official told Reuters this month the Vice-President’s focus would be on defending international rules in the South China Sea, strengthening US regional leadership and expanding security cooperation.

Regional experts like Murray Hiebert at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies said Harris would have to try to reassure her hosts that Washington’s commitment to the region was firm.

“The debacle in Afghanistan will prompt concerns again about US staying power and keeping promises to allies,” he said.

The chaotic evacuations from Kabul have evoked images of the 1975 fall of Saigon and the US withdrawal from Vietnam, whose Communist-ruled government Washington sought to isolate for two decades after the Vietnam War, but with which it now enjoys warm ties given shared concerns about China.

The US embassy evacuation of Saigon (today Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975, after North Vietnamese took over South Vietnam.Credit:Corbis/Bettmann/Reuters

A senior administration official said Harris’ trip would show the US was in the region “to stay” but concerns about the outcome in Afghanistan could muddy that message.

“What has happened in Afghanistan has been quite frustrating and upsetting for a lot of countries,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Centre think tank. “The concern is one day when the United States determines you are no longer as important, they can just pack up and leave and there is nothing you can do about it.”

“And of course there’s China trying to capitalise on that narrative.”

US aircraft carriers the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Nimitz on patrol in the South China Sea last year. Credit:AP

Vietnam has been a vocal opponent of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and Singapore shares concerns about Beijing’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region.

They and other south-east Asian countries have welcomed the American military presence there given China’s militarisation of the disputed maritime corridor, and its vast coast guard and fishing fleet.

The US Navy has maintained a steady pattern of freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea and near Taiwan, but those appear to have done little to discourage Beijing.

The senior administration official said Washington was confident the United States’ Indo-Pacific allies saw it as a “steadfast partner” and Harris would emphasise that on her trip.

The official said south-east Asia and the Indo-Pacific were priorities for the Biden administration and “that hasn’t changed with Afghanistan”.

“There’s a difference between ensuring open sea lanes in Asia, which is a priority for the United States, and the continued involvement in another country’s civil war,” he said.

She’s scheduled to meet with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday and take part in a meeting on supply chain resilience. In Hanoi, she will launch the south-east Asia regional office of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among the top priorities for both sides is filling the economic void left by the Trump administration’s withdrawal of the trade agreement now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, CPTPP, which includes four south-east Asian nations. Under Biden, the US is discussing proposals for a digital trade deal covering Indo-Pacific economies as a possible avenue to check China’s influence.

At the same time, Harris would continue to work on issues tied to Afghanistan during her trip, the official said adding: “We can do more than one thing at a time.”

Some experts point to a silver lining from the withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying it could enable Washington to free up resources from a counter-terrorism mission and focus more on countering Beijing.

“The shift to deterring and preparing for a conflict with a near-peer competitor will be accelerated as the counter-terrorism mindset recedes,” said Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, referring to China.

Others warn that the chaos in Kabul could at least delay that shift.

Reuters, Bloomberg

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