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The Kamala Harris’ hollow visit to South-East Asia

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 1 September 2021

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris just completed a four-day visit to Singapore and Vietnam. The Vice President appeared to be much better prepared this time than for her trip to South America earlier this year. She undertook the Asian trip without being taken to task by the US right-wing media.

The Harris visit timing was extremely unfortunate, leading to speculation that it may have been cancelled. It went ahead with the drama of evacuations from the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, taking the focus from her trip. This forced the Vice President to start all her press conferences with a summary and comment about the situation in Afghanistan, before reporting on any achievements from her meetings with Singaporean and Vietnamese leaders.

The Vice President's trip was intended to capitalize on the Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin's visit to Singapore and Vietnam a few weeks prior to her visit. The Biden administration's focus on the region has been intense over the last few months with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman's visit to Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand and, also, Secretary of State Antony Blinkin's participation in ASEAN ministerial forums.


Before the Harris visit, the US administration had donated Covid-19 vaccines to most countries within the region, in what has been described as vaccine diplomacy. The competition between the U.S. and China has become overtly competitive with China on the eve of the Harris visit to Vietnam announcing they would donate another 2 million doses of vaccine to Vietnam: some one-upmanship on the U.S. vaccine donation.

The major objective of the Vice President's visit to Singapore and Vietnam was to work on the Biden doctrine deliverables to the region. The Biden doctrine was outlined by Secretary Austin in Singapore at the Fullerton Lecture, last month. This doctrine devised by Kurt Michael Campbell and a State Department think tank, emphasises security, cooperation, freedom of navigation, a rules-based order, with a values-based approach to partnerships and mutual cooperation.

In Singapore with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a joint press conference, a list of new initiatives was outlined on the joint podium. These included a focus on climate change, cyber security, developing resilient supply chains particularly for semi-conductors, and cooperation on health and security. This looked transactional at best, especially given the pre-existing deep relationship, especially on military matters.

As a gracious host the Singapore Prime Minister Lee was silent when Harris singled out China's aggressiveness on the South China Sea.

Singaporeans in general have a respect for China, particularly with clan, family, and economic relationships with the nation. Consequently, Singapore didn't want to appear to be jumping into a détente, with "Cold War" undertones, with this condemnation of Chinese behaviour.

; indeed, Austin himself while in Singapore said that nations of the region are not expected to have to choose between the U.S. and China. Singapore was not flustered by the Harris rhetoric which was seen as having no constructive purpose from their point of view.


Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin rebuked Harris, saying that the U.S. so called rules-based order is a way to arbitrarily interfere militarily in a sovereign nation without being held responsible for the suffering of its people.

In Vietnam, Harris once again singled out China, referring to China's bullying and intimidation with maritime claims on the South China Sea. Harris wanted to persuade Vietnam to pressure China on this issue, which Vietnam was very unenthusiastic about.

Another cornerstone of the Biden doctrine is the values-based approach to cooperation and relationships within the region, especially the issue of human rights. Myanmar, or Burma as the U.S. still refers to the country, came up in discussions. However, Harris was criticized as being soft on Vietnam which had been criticized in the treatment of dissidents.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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