She delivered the speech in Singapore, the first stop of her Southeast Asia visit that will also include a trip to Vietnam. Her visit comes at a time when the United States is being targeted by a propaganda campaign by actors for the Chinese Communist Party, hoping to persuade nations to view the United States as an unreliable ally based on its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“We know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate, and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” Harris said, adding that China’s claims in the disputed seas have been deemed “unlawful” in a 2016 international ruling that rejected Beijing’s territorial assertion.
“Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations,” she said.
Harris sought to reassure like-minded nations in the region, saying the United States “stands with our allies and our partners” in the face of China’s threats.
China has tried to forcibly deny other countries in the region from accessing the rich fishing grounds in the disputed sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all face territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
In July last year, more than a dozen onboard a Vietnamese fishing boat were forced to jump overboard after their ship was rammed by a Chinese vessel. In January, a Filipino fisherman said he was blocked by the Chinese Coast Guard from sailing to a fishing area near an island administered by Manila.
In March, more than 200 Chinese vessels—believed to be crewed by Beijing’s maritime militia—moored at Whitsun Reef, one of the disputed reefs, islands, and atolls in the South China Sea.
Harris said the United States was committed to upholding the vision and return to a ”free and open Indo-Pacific,” which includes freedom on the seas, unimpeded commerce, and advancing human rights.
“Now, as we face threats to that order, I am here to reaffirm our commitment to that vision,” Harris said.
She also addressed how Washington seeks to partner with nations in the region.
She explained: “Our engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country. Nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries.
“Instead, our engagement is about advancing an optimistic vision that we have for our participation and partnership in this region,” she added.
China’s propaganda campaign, which began after the Taliban’s swift takeover of the Afghan capital of Kabul, has continued unabated during Harris’s trip. On Aug. 23, China’s state-run CGTN, the overseas arms of Chinese broadcaster CCTV, published an opinion article saying, “It seems that being abandoned is inevitable if you put too much faith in the United States.”
The opinion article also criticized Harris, saying she wouldn’t be able to “rescue tanking U.S. credibility” with her trip.
China’s hawkish state-run media Global Times, in an article published on Aug. 24, mocked the idea that Harris would want to strengthen bilateral ties with Vietnam, saying such an objective would be “wishful thinking.”
Harris will travel to Vietnam on Aug. 24 for a three-day visit. Before traveling to Vietnam, she is scheduled to hold a roundtable discussion with business leaders.
After Harris gave her speech at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay waterfront park, three senior U.S. officials took part in a panel discussion that was hosted by Chan Heng Chee, ambassador-at-large with Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Chan asked the three panelists if Washington “would have a harder time persuading countries to work” with the United States after what happened in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think it’s accurate to suggest that Afghanistan somehow shows the United States is not a reliable partner,” said Phil Gordon, deputy national security advisor to Harris, pointing to U.S. efforts in the country in the last 20 years.
Gordon added that President Joe Biden made the decision to pull out of Afghanistan so that the United States “can pursue our interests and focus on the things that matter to us, and that includes this region.”
Kin Moy, senior official for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department, addressed Chan’s question by saying that the United States has been committed to the Indo-Pacific and that this will continue.
“We are looking at those future challenges too, to create even more opportunities. And I think that you will see that in the future,” Moy said.