Kamala Harris has an important job to do in Asia

Vice President Harris listens as President Biden speaks on the COVID-19 vaccine efforts in the South Court Auditorium of the White House
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The Biden administration appears committed to responding to the challenge that China poses to the United States. In his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released in March, President Biden made clear the importance of partnering with Asian nations: “We will deepen our partnership with India and work alongside New Zealand, as well as Singapore, Vietnam and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, to advance shared objectives.” With her planned trip to Asia, specifically to Vietnam and Singapore, Vice President Kamala Harris will take on another foreign policy challenge: helping to implement fundamental pieces of the Indo-Pacific strategy. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan confronted China earlier this year to let Beijing know that the administration will protect and promote American interests. Those interests can be supported by working with nations such as Vietnam and Singapore, to let them know the U.S. will back them in their relations with China and ask that they return the favor. 

As Biden’s Asia expert, Kurt Campbell, has said, “We believe that the best way to engage a more assertive China is to work with allies, partners and friends.” This is what Harris’s visit is about — a complement to the direct engagement with China by Blinken, Sullivan and others, including Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

Singapore is an excellent example of the importance of the need for the U.S. to reinforce relations with East Asian nations. As a Foreign Policy article by William Choong points out, the U.S. has solid economic ties with Singapore. The U.S. is the largest source of foreign direct investment there, and has had a free trade agreement (FTA) with Singapore since 2004. The militaries of the two countries have a close relationship as well. A memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Singapore gives the U.S. military access to its bases — air and naval — and provides logistical support to U.S. personnel.

The complication with U.S.-Singaporean relations lies in the fact that Singapore maintains a strong relationship with China as well. A Pew poll comparing views of China and of the U.S. shows the Biden administration’s efforts to work with other nations may be paying off — key Asian nations view the U.S. more favorably than China by a margin of 61 percent to 27 percent. The notable exception among the nations surveyed was Singapore, where 51 percent of those polled viewed the U.S. favorably and 64 percent viewed China favorably. This means that Harris’s visit could be crucial to ensuring that the U.S. does not lose any ground to China in Singapore. Such a high-level visit is meant to emphasize the importance the administration places on relations with Singapore.

As Biden’s National Security Strategy mentions, Vietnam also is an important piece of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on U.S.-Vietnam ties underscores the fact that relations between the two countries have strengthened since normalization took place in 1995. There has been a concerted effort by the two nations to maintain good ties. A State Department fact sheet on Vietnam points out, “Relations are guided by the 2013 U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, an overarching framework for advancing the bilateral relationship.”

In addition, the fact sheet stresses that economic relations with Vietnam have grown considerably since normalization: “U.S.-Vietnam bilateral trade has grown from $451 million in 1995 to over $90 billion in 2020. U.S. goods exports to Vietnam were worth over $10 billion in 2020, and U.S. goods imports in 2020 were worth $79.6 billion. U.S. investment in Vietnam was $2.6 billion in 2019.”

The common concern regarding China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea is another bond between the U.S. and Vietnam.  

The relationship, however, is not without problems. On the economic front, Vietnam had a trade deficit with the U.S. of $49.5 billion in 2020. In December 2020, the U.S. Trade Representative accused Vietnam of currency manipulation, although no specific actions have been taken against the Vietnamese government. The Biden administration has a more low-key approach than the Trump administration for dealing with economic problems, including the trade deficit.

The other area of concern is Vietnam’s human rights record. A report from Human Rights Watch lays out the case: “Vietnam did little to improve its abysmal human rights record in 2019. The government continues to restrict all basic civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly and the rights to freely practice beliefs and religion.” There are also problems with Vietnam regarding government interference with media, particularly anything that is critical of the government.  

Harris has her work cut out for her with her Asia trip. The good news is that, as a former senator from California, she understands the importance of ties, especially economic ties, between Asia and the U.S. This will help with the role she plays in developing and implementing the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, making her upcoming trip a key Biden foreign policy effort.

William Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Tags Antony Blinken Biden foreign policy China Indo-Pacific allies Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Singapore Vietnam

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