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Kamala Harris tour heralds renewed US focus on Asia, including Taiwan

US vice president's visit shows importance of Southeast Asia, but real follow-up needed

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris at the State Dining Room at the White House on Aug. 10, 2021. (Reuters photo)

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris at the State Dining Room at the White House on Aug. 10, 2021. (Reuters photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — If the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a painful reminder of where U.S. security policy has gone wrong for the past two decades, Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Southeast Asia last week gave hope it is now heading in the right direction.

In the short term, the turbulent pullout from Kabul may have dented U.S. credibility and been an unwelcome sight for America’s allies — many of whom hoped Biden was more predictable than his predecessor. Yet recent history shows the switch from the Middle East to Asia is never that simple.

Former U.S. President Obama got bogged down in the Middle East during his early years before attempting his "Pivot to Asia," which sought to check Beijing’s increasing economic heft and aggressive security stance. Obama’s policy laid the groundwork for the next iteration — the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Many analysts have argued the withdrawal from Afghanistan will enable the U.S. to focus its military strength on the Indo-Pacific region, where Chinese bellicosity has grown in recent years. While Beijing is trying to take advantage of the flux from Afghanistan, the U.S. is sending out the right message in the Indo-Pacific.

In addressing the apprehensions of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, Biden reiterated their firm security relationship and highlighted the fundamental differences between Afghanistan and the three countries.

Though Northeast Asian alliances are critical, Harris' visit to Southeast Asia this time was the right move.

Kamala Harris ASEAN visit

By visiting Vietnam and Singapore, Harris sent a strong signal that these countries, and ASEAN more broadly, are at the center of the post-Afghanistan renewed U.S. focus on Asia. Harris was clear about what the U.S. mission is in the region and did not mince words criticizing China for its hegemonic attitude towards its neighbors.

“We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” — a reference to the UN treaty that establishes all maritime activities around the world — “and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” she said.

Beijing’s reaction showed it did not take kindly to Harris’ remarks. China pointed to the U.S’ handling of Afghanistan as evidence of why allies could no longer depend upon the superpower.

On Vietnam, CCP mouthpiece Global Times said Harris had “insulted Hanoi’s wisdom.”

A quick vaccine diplomacy duel ensued. Days before Harris reached Vietnam, China pledged 2 million COVID-19 vaccines to Hanoi, while Harris, shortly after arriving, promised 1 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses, with the first shots arriving on Thursday.

In Singapore, Harris signed agreements covering cybersecurity, climate, and economic cooperation, and used the opportunity to reassure Southeast Asian countries that Washington would not force them to choose between the U.S. and China.

While Harris toured Southeast Asia, important steps were underway in Northeast Asia too, key among them being the semi-official "2+2" talks between Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), each expressing a cooperative spirit and issuing a joint response to threats by Beijing.

Pivot to Asia 2.0

On Aug. 20, an official from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs issued an unequivocal statement in favor of Taiwan, urging “Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan & instead to engage in meaningful dialogue.”

Though Harris’ tour of Southeast Asia sent important signals, the follow-up will determine its impact over the long term. This is especially true given that despite supportive rhetoric from both the Trump and Obama administrations, visits by American leaders to Southeast Asia have been infrequent, with Trump’s notorious no-shows at key ASEAN dialogues leaving the region feeling neglected by Washington.

It is also important that apart from security issues, the U.S. works closely with allies in Asia to provide a competing economic narrative and alternatives to China's Belt and Road Initiative. One of the key messages from Harris was that the U.S. focus on the region will cater to the region’s economy rather than a zero-sum security focus on China.

“Our engagement is about advancing an optimistic vision that we have for our participation and partnership in this region,” she stated.

While the U.S. can offer a counterweight, Asian countries should not depend on Washington and should do more to collaborate with each other to counter security threats from China.

When done properly, strategic pivots like military withdrawals take time. It is too late for Biden to fix the blunder in Kabul, but if the momentum from Harris' trip can be sustained, he may finish what Obama started in Asia earlier than expected.