Wednesday, September 22, 2021

US VP Kamala Harris to focus on security, economic ties on Southeast Asia trip

The region is important for the Biden administration as it seeks to counter China’s diplomatic and military incursions in the region.

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US Vice-President Kamala Harris will visit Southeast Asia later this month aiming to boost American engagement in the region in an effort to counter China’s growing global influence.

In a preview of the goals for her trip to Singapore and Vietnam, deputy national security adviser Phil Gordon said the vice-president will emphasise the Biden administration’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region, with a focus on reinforcing regional security in the area, the AP reports.

“The vice-president will meet with government officials, leaders, people in the private sector and civil society, and she’ll focus on strengthening US leadership, expanding security cooperation, deepening economic partnerships, defending the international rules-based order, in particular in the South China Sea, and standing up for our values as we do with all of our friends and partners,” he said.

The full details of Harris’ trip are still being worked out, but she is planning for a week in the region, from Aug 20 to 26.

Harris has had little public engagement in Southeast Asia, but Asia has been a central focus of the Biden administration from the beginning of his presidency, as he has sought to counter China’s diplomatic and military incursions in the region.

The president has sent some of his top Cabinet officials to Asia to show support for US allies in the region.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently made their first overseas trips to Japan and South Korea.

Austin also traveled to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines last month where he vowed US support against Beijing’s intrusions in the South China Sea.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia in May and early June. Last month she visited Japan, South Korea and Mongolia before heading to China for high-level talks that ultimately did little to resolve many of the deep divisions between the two countries.

Harris will be the first US vice-president to visit Vietnam, and her trip is meant to show the depth of Washington’s commitment to the region.

“It’s really part of an overall unified administration engagement strategy that shows our comprehensive engagement in East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia as well,” said Gordon.

The visits will come as polls show Harris’ popularity sliding with the US electorate. In fact, some polls suggest she is the least popular vice-president since the 1970s.

The Telegraph reported over the weekend that “two recent polls both showed 46% of Americans approved of Harris, with 47% and 48% disapproving”.

Despite efforts to connect with younger voters, Harris struggles to maintain a favourable image with America’s youth.

A recent Economist/YouGov poll quoted by the Telegraph found 41% of voters ages 18-29 had an “unfavourable” view of Harris, while only 36% viewed her “favourably”.

When asked to consider possible scenarios involving the 78-year-old president, a recent survey from the Trafalgar Group found that a majority of likely voters and even almost half of Democrats – her own party – do not believe Harris is ready to step into the presidential role.

Professor Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said, “Biden has given her some very tough assignments – immigration and voting rights – but she hasn’t helped herself, she’s made some mistakes, like not going to the Mexican border.”

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