Vice President Kamala Harris, in a visit to Singapore and Vietnam next week that aims to counter China’s growing influence, will have to contend with a new problem: the collapse of Afghanistan, which has left allies questioning the credibility of U.S. foreign policy promises, according to A Reuters report.
U.S. allies have complained they were not fully consulted on President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31, which appeared at odds with his promises to recommit to global engagement.
With the Taliban’s rapid takeover putting their national security interests at risk, countries in both Europe and Asia are wondering whether they can rely on Washington to fulfill long-standing security commitments, experts say.
Harris’ trip aims to establish deeper ties with Southeast Asia, a region Washington considers key to checking Chinese expansion.
Regional experts like Murray Hiebert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said Harris would have to try to reassure her hosts that Washington’s commitment to Southeast Asia is firm and not a parallel to Afghanistan.
“The debacle in Afghanistan will prompt concerns again about U.S. staying power and keeping promises to allies,” he said.
The chaotic evacuations from Kabul have evoked images of the 1975 U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, whose Communist-ruled government Washington sought to isolate for two decades after the Vietnam War, but with which it now enjoys warm ties given shared concerns about China.
A senior administration official said Harris’ trip would show that the United States was in the region “to stay,” but concerns about the outcome in Afghanistan could muddy that message.
“What has happened in Afghanistan has been quite frustrating and upsetting for a lot of countries,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center think tank. “The concern is one day when the United States determines you are no longer as important, they can just pack up and leave and there is nothing you can do about it.”
“And of course there’s China trying to capitalize on that narrative.”
Vietnam has been a vocal opponent of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and Singapore shares concerns about Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior in the region.
The U.S. Navy has maintained a steady pattern of freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea and near Taiwan, but those appear to have done little to discourage Beijing.
The official said Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific were priorities for the Biden administration and “that hasn’t changed with Afghanistan.”
Some experts point to a silver lining for Southeast Asia from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying it will enable Washington to free up resources from a counterterrorism mission and focus more on countering Beijing.
“The shift to deterring and preparing for a conflict with a near-peer competitor will be accelerated as the counterterrorism mindset recedes,” said Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, referring to China.
Harris is due in Singapore on Sunday and will become the first U.S. vice president to visit Vietnam when she arrives there on Tuesday.