US Vice-President Kamala Harris delivers a speech at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore before departing for Vietnam on the second leg of her Asia trip, on August, 24, 2021. Photo: AFP / Evelyn Hockstein / Pool

US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Southeast Asia couldn’t have come at a more critical moment. The Biden administration’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan rekindled long-simmering anxieties over Washington’s wherewithal and overall commitment to regional allies, especially as a resurgent China carves out new spheres of influence across the Indo-Pacific.

As Harris acknowledged, much is at stake in a region which will “in large part … dictate the future of our world.” The vice president’s choice of destinations among the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also brought into sharp relief the Biden administration’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy.

Singapore and Vietnam hosted the second American cabinet-level official in less than a month, having hosted US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin just weeks earlier. This reflects Washington’s growing reliance on perceived as likeminded and reliable regimes rather than unwieldy allies such as Thailand or non-aligned democratic powers such as Indonesia.

Harris rolled out a comprehensive vision of American engagement with the region, which cuts across a wide array of cooperative initiatives from battling the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change to enhancing trade and investment linkages as well as resisting China’s “bullying” in the South China Sea.

By and large, her visit marked a timely reassurance maneuver by the Biden administration, which is intent on assembling a coalition of “like-minded” powers to check China’s rising influence across the Indo-Pacific.

Nevertheless, Harris’ regional trip also underscored the lingering absence of mega-initiatives on both the military and economic fronts, prompting even Vietnam to openly hedge its bets by declaring its unwillingness to side with any superpower against another.

During her trip to Singapore, Harris consciously built on Austin’s earlier remarks in the city-state by emphasizing America’s shared interest in preserving “peace and stability, freedom on the seas, unimpeded commerce, advancing human rights, a commitment to the international rules-based order and the recognition that our common interests are not zero-sum.”

In a clear break from the Donald Trump administration’s confrontational strategy on China, Harris also made it clear that “[o]ur engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country, nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries.”

Nevertheless, she underscored America’s commitment to allies and regional partners by openly criticizing China’s “unlawful” moves in the South China Sea, where multiple Southeast Asian claimants are at loggerheads with the Asian superpower. 

China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier (C) sailing during a drill in the South China Sea, April 18, 2018. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

“These unlawful claims have been rejected by the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision, and Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations,” said Harris, emphasizing the finality of the Philippine-initiated arbitral tribunal ruling, which nullified the bulk of Chinese claims cross the disputed waters as contrary to prevailing international law.

Days later, Harris took an even tougher line in Hanoi, where she emphasized the need for “work[ing] closely with Vietnam to uphold rule-based international freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea as well as “find ways to pressure and raise the pressure” against China’s “bullying and excessive maritime claims.”

“The US stands with our allies and partners in the face of these threats,” declared the US vice president, a deliberate attempt at soothing anxieties in the wake of the abandonment and swift collapse of the Washington-backed regime in Afghanistan.

For his part, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose views are widely seen as a bellwether of regional sentiments, was quick to reassure his American guest of continued regional confidence despite the recent debacle in Afghanistan.

“The US had invested considerable blood and treasure in Afghanistan. But it was an intractable task given the complex history, geography and tribal rivalries of the place,” said Lee, striking a sympathetic note by highlighting America’s ability for “recalculations and adjust their positions from time to time.”

“What will influence perceptions of US resolve and commitment to the region will be what the US does going forward,” added Lee, who said his country and the broader region is “grateful” for America’s post-World War II role as a “benign and constructive influence” and a “regional guarantor of security and support of prosperity” in Asia.

Harris’ Southeast Asian tour also had a strong economic dimension, given the growing importance of both Singapore and Vietnam as major trade and investment partners. Despite all the talk of China’s outsized economic influence, the US still stands as the largest source of foreign direct investment in Singapore, which amounts to an estimated US$315 billion.

Given Singapore’s position as a regional economic hub, much of these Western investments tend to disperse across the broader Southeast Asian region. For its part, Singapore has become America’s second-largest investor from Asia, with direct investment stock reaching $65 billion in recent years.

US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) making a fist bump with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as they meet in Singapore, August 23, 2021. Photo: AFP via The Straits Times / Kevin Lim

As for Vietnam, the Southeast Asian country has emerged as the leading regional alternative to Western manufacturing investments in China. In 2019, Vietnam-US bilateral trade reached $81.3 billion, with close to a quarter of total Vietnamese exports ($67.9 billion) destined for the US.

In a speech that was jointly hosted by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the US Embassy in Singapore at Gardens by the Bay, the US vice president emphasized the need for greater economic integration from supply chains to critical infrastructure and strategic industries with trusted partners.

“We believe that our growth should not stop at the water’s edge, but it can and will also benefit our partners. Our economy shares so much with Southeast Asia, from supply chains to a steady flow of two-way trade,” she said, highlighting the emergence of Southeast Asia as the US’ fourth-largest export market responsible for as many as 600,000 American jobs.

In another major departure from the Trump administration, Harris pushed back against protectionism and instead advocated for free trade across the Indo-Pacific, especially with dynamic Southeast Asian nations.

To the delight of the regional business community, she declared America’s willingness to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 2023, underscoring the Biden administration’s desire for deeper economic engagement with the region and restored commitment to multilateral trade mechanisms shunned by the previous Trump administration.

Meanwhile, Washington is also exploring ways to enhance its infrastructure footprint in Asia as an antidote to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In addition to recent multilateral initiatives, including the Blue Dot Network (BDN) with Australia and Japan and the Build Back Better World (B3W) with fellow G7 powers, the Biden administration is doubling down on the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), an initiative that dates back to 2019 and is geared towards raising green investments in climate change-vulnerable regions such as Southeast Asia.

“The DFC is very affirmatively seeking to provide an alternative to the type of financing that China provides through its Belt and Road Initiative,” Jake Levine, chief climate officer at the DFC, told reporters.

“China has engaged in certain development finance practices that are more in line with the type of practices that you see coming from authoritarian governments, you see other recipient governments oftentimes pressured to take … sort of debt-trap financing,” he added, emphasizing the Biden administration’s focus on sustainable and “values-based” investments.

During her Southeast Asian tour, Harris highlighted other key regional economic initiatives including the US-Mekong partnership, which was launched in order to enhance economic and environmental cooperation between the US and the continental Southeast Asian states of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

A cargo boat on the Mekong River near the Pak Ou tributary, Luang Prabang, Laos, February 1, 2017. Photo: Wikimedia/Christian Terrissen

In Vietnam, she pressed ahead with various initiatives such as the three-year, $2.9 million Mekong Coastal Habitat Conservation project as well as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between USAID and the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) to boost Vietnam’s economic integration with the US.

Amid a raging Covid-19 outbreak which has hit Vietnam hardest in recent weeks, Harris’ visit coincided with the launching of a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Southeast Asia Regional Office in Hanoi; a pledge of 77 ultra-low temperature vaccine freezers to assist vaccination distribution in all of Vietnam’s 63 provinces; and donation of 1 million additional US-made Covid-19 vaccines, bringing total US donations to the Southeast Asia country to 6 million doses in recent months.

Nevertheless, there are still lingering doubts over America’s commitment to regional allies as well as its overall ability to compete effectively against a resurgent China.

Despite rising tensions in the South China Sea, the Biden administration is yet to finalize any major defense deal with Vietnam years after the normalization of bilateral ties. Nor has Washington presented any concrete blueprint for its proposed digital free trade initiative in Asia, which aims at keeping China’s economic influence at bay.

As such, even China’s biggest regional rivals have hedged their bets, welcoming relatively modest assistance from Washington short of openly switching sides. Ahead of Harris’ visit this week, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh met Beijing’s top envoy in Hanoi to reassure the Asian powerhouse of the country’s balanced foreign policy.

“The two sides need to strive to maintain peace and stability, satisfactorily settle disagreements at sea in the spirit of high-level common perceptions,” said the Vietnamese prime minister during his meeting with China’s Xiong Bo, emphasizing his country’s longstanding policy of non-alignment with any external power.