Harris Arrives in Singapore to Begin Southeast Asia Visit as US Focuses on Countering China in Indo-Pacific

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
journalist
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a Master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
August 22, 2021 Updated: August 23, 2021

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Singapore on Aug. 22 as part of a Southeast Asia trip that will also take her to Vietnam. Her trip, which was announced last month, now has an added sense of urgency, following the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan.

Regional security, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and efforts to promote a rules-based international order are among the issues that Harris will discuss with leaders of both Singapore and Vietnam, according to the U.S. Embassy in Singapore.

“Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific are critically important to the security and prosperity of the United States,” Harris, who was greeted on arrival by Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, wrote on Twitter.

Harris’s trip was first announced in July. Before her arrival, a senior administration official reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific, saying in a briefing on Aug. 19 that the United States was in the region “to stay” and that Harris would advance the vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” during her upcoming meetings.

Harris’s trip comes at a pivotal time for the Biden administration, given concerns about the future of Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal, and how China might fill the vacuum left by the United States and expand its influence in the region.

Chinese diplomats and state-run media have started a propaganda offensive about the poorly executed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. One Chinese official said the withdrawal was “a laughingstock,” while state-run media have used the crisis as an opportunity to level threats against Taiwan and cast the United States as an unreliable ally to the island nation.

The United States’ engagement with Singapore and Vietnam is also vital as the Biden administration sets out its agenda to rally allies to push back against the Chinese regime’s continued aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. Vietnam, along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei, faces territorial disputes with China in the area.

Alan Chong, associate professor in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, recently told Japanese outlet Nikkei Asia that Harris’s trip could help “reassure America’s allies about America’s commitment, notwithstanding the Taliban takeover” in Afghanistan.

Chong added that Harris could use her trip to show Asian allies that the “United States will not retreat” in the region.

Meanwhile, China’s state-run media have billed Harris’s trip as a Sino–U.S. tussle in Southeast Asia that Washington could not possibly win. On Aug. 21, state-run news agency Xinhua quoted a Chinese expert accusing the United States of “turning Southeast Asia into its frontier against China.”

On Aug. 20, state-run China Daily published an op-ed that accused the United States of being the “most destructive factor” in the South China Sea. It also claimed that the United States wouldn’t be able to “sow discord” between China and Southeast Asian nations.

Pham Thu Hang, deputy spokesperson for the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, told an online briefing on Aug. 19 that the visit will help “deepen the Vietnam–US comprehensive partnership” for “peace, stability, cooperation, and development in the region and the world,” according to Vietnamese media.

The next day, Balakrishnan told Reuters in an interview that Singapore hopes to “make progress cooperating on pandemic recovery, on the digital economy, green economy, and on cybersecurity” during Harris’s visit.

The trip marks the second visit by a U.S. official to Singapore in as many months. In July, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Singapore and pledged to work with regional partners to “deter coercion and aggression across the spectrum of conflict,” which included China’s assertive actions in the disputed South China Sea.

On Aug. 23, Harris is scheduled to speak with Singaporean President Halimah Yacob on the phone, take part in a meeting with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and deliver remarks on a U.S. combat ship.

The following day, Harris plans to deliver a speech on U.S. foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.

She will then travel to Vietnam and is scheduled to hold a virtual meeting with health ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Harris is the first U.S. vice president to ever visit Vietnam.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Frank Fang
Frank Fang
journalist
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a Master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.