U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris sought to reassure allies in Asia over Washington’s commitment to the region, as she faced a volley of questions on Afghanistan during a visit to Singapore.
During a news briefing on Monday, Harris pointed to a series of agreements reached with Singapore on cybersecurity, climate and public health as evidence the U.S. is committed to honoring agreements with longstanding security partners in the region.
The vice president mentioned that the U.S. was focused on successfully completing the evacuation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have effectively taken control following 20 years of war with America. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong offered to help the U.S. with the evacuation effort.
“Today we are in Singapore to stress and reaffirm our enduring relationship to this country and in this region, and to reinforce a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region and to reaffirm our mutual interests in peace and stability in Southeast Asia,” Harris said in a joint briefing with Lee.
The U.S. has faced criticism even from its allies for the chaos in Afghanistan as it withdraws troops from the country. President Joe Biden has stood by his decision, and said American intelligence assessments didn’t foresee such a rapid advance by the Taliban and collapse of the Afghan military.
Singapore’s Lee emphasized the importance of the U.S.’s role as a “regional guarantor of security and support of prosperity” over the past seven decades in Asia despite “difficult moments” along the way.
“We are watching what’s happening in Afghanistan on the TV screens today, but what will influence perceptions of U.S. resolve and commitment to the region will be what the U.S. does going forward,” Lee said. “How it repositions itself in the region, how it engages its broad range of friends and partners and allies in the region, and how it continues the fight against terrorism.”
During her first full work day in Singapore, Harris and Lee on Monday announced a series of agreements between the nations, including a dialogue to boost cooperation on supply-chain resilience. While it’s not clear yet which industries will participate in the dialogue, Harris is scheduled to meet private sector and government leaders in Singapore on Tuesday to discuss the matter.
Harris and Lee held a restricted meeting to talk candidly, a senior official said, before they opened up the meeting to their staff members. The two leaders also discussed the role of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other regional issues including China and Myanmar, senior administration officials said.
The effort to deepen economic ties doesn’t include talks for new trade agreements, one official said. While trade is part of Harris’s conversations in Asia, negotiations for a framework like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or even a digital trade agreement aren’t on her agenda, the official added.
The vice president made it clear that while the U.S. welcomes stiff competition with Beijing, the Biden administration doesn’t want that competition to veer into conflict, the officials said.
Even as China’s growing economic and military might looms large over the meetings this week, U.S. officials have tried to divert attention from countering Beijing and sought to frame the trip as a way to hone in on U.S. engagement in the region and advancing shared interests — without asking countries to choose sides between Washington and Beijing.
Wendy Cutler, a former trade official who’s now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said that distinction was positive for the relationship’s trajectory.
“While the vice president’s message of ‘We’re back and you can count on us’ may be met with some skepticism during her trip, this can be overcome with the announcement of concrete initiatives with serious follow-through,” she said. “To be successful, any new initiatives must be framed in the affirmative and not as anti-China.”
Harris’s visit to the city-state comes as Singapore’s day-to-day life is largely shut down to contain coronavirus outbreaks. That makes the usual pleasantries associated with such a trip difficult. But at least one customary ceremony took place: Lee named an orchid after Harris — a tradition for foreign guests of honor.
Harris will try to make her mark in the region as the first vice president to visit Vietnam later this week. She is scheduled to depart Singapore for Hanoi on Tuesday afternoon.
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