VP Harris says the main focus should stay on evacuations from Afghanistan: NPR
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (left) and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will hold a joint press conference in Singapore on Monday, August 23, 2021. Evelyn Hockstein / AP hide caption
Evelyn Hockstein / AP
Evelyn Hockstein / AP
SINGAPORE – Vice President Kamala Harris said Monday the US needs to maintain its focus on evacuating Americans and vulnerable Afghans and not become distracted by questions about what went wrong with the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan.
At a press conference in Singapore, Harris repeatedly declined to attend when asked what she thought should have been done differently in the withdrawal.
“There is no question that there will and should be a solid analysis of what happened, but for now our focus must be on evacuating American citizens, Afghans who have worked with us, and vulnerable Afghans, including women and children.” She said.
Harris, along with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, asked questions after the two met for about two hours to discuss topics ranging from the COVID-19 response to cybersecurity and supply chain collaboration . The press conference was dominated by Afghanistan after the messy US withdrawal raised concerns about America’s obligations to its allies around the world.
Harris’ visit to Singapore and Vietnam this week is believed to be the first real test of the Biden government’s ability to convince key allies of its determination.
Prime Minister Lee, however, offered his country’s support for the US withdrawal, saying Singapore was “grateful” for US efforts to fight terrorism in Afghanistan. He also offered the US to use Singapore Air Force transport planes to help with the evacuation, saying the country is now watching what the US does next.
“The important thing is how the US repositions itself in the Asia-Pacific region, engages the wider region and continues to fight terrorism, as this will determine how countries perceive the US global priorities and strategic intentions,” he said.
Harris’ Southeast Asia trip, which takes her to Singapore this week and later to Vietnam, aims to broaden collaboration with both nations to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region.
On Monday, the Vice President’s Office announced a series of new agreements with Singapore to tackle cyber threats, tackle climate change, tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and alleviate supply chain problems.
With regard to cybersecurity, the Treasury Department and the Department of Defense and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency each signed a letter of intent with their counterparts in Singapore to expand information sharing and training on countering cyber threats.
The two nations agreed to work more closely together to track COVID-19 variants and participate in research into coronavirus treatments. And the Department of Commerce is partnering with the Singapore Department of Commerce and Industry to create a partnership focused on boosting trade in a handful of key industries.
The White House announced additional agreements between the two nations that will encourage cooperation on space exploration and defense issues as well. The announcements came Monday after Harris met with Singapore President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee.
Harris will visit Changi Naval Base Monday afternoon to speak to American sailors aboard the USS Tulsa, a combat ship.
On Tuesday, Harris will deliver a speech outlining the Biden government’s vision for the region and meet with business leaders to discuss supply chain issues.
The trip marks Harris’ second overseas trip in office – visiting Guatemala and Mexico in June – and will be the first time a U.S. Vice President visits Vietnam.
Singapore is the anchor of the U.S. Navy’s presence in Southeast Asia and has a deep trading partnership with the U.S., but the country also seeks strong ties with China and a neutral position amid the increasingly frosty U.S.-China ties.
Relations between the US and China have deteriorated significantly under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, and the two sides remain at odds on a variety of issues including technology, cybersecurity and human rights.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made their first trips abroad to Japan and South Korea. Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines last month pledging US support against Beijing’s invasion of the South China Sea.
Alexander Feldman, President and CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council, said Harris must be careful in their talks with Singapore leaders not to over-focus on China but to highlight a positive, productive US relationship with Singapore and Vietnam.
“Where she could fall into a trap is trying to portray this as a trip between the US and China. It should be a trip to the US to see our friends and partners in Southeast Asia,” Feldman said.
If China becomes the main attraction, “it will make it difficult for our friends to advance in the region, not just in Singapore and Vietnam but beyond.”
Indeed, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a recent interview that Singapore “will be useful in its relations with both countries, but we will not be exploited,” and the country’s prime minister previously warned the US against taking an aggressive approach towards China .
Beijing has picked up on Harris’ trip, however, and China’s official Xinhua news agency published an editorial on the visit on Saturday portraying it as part of efforts to contain China.
The visits by senior Biden officials to Southeast Asia are aimed at “wooing these countries to form a containment ring against China,” Xinhua said.
The US approach is based on “outdated Cold War thinking and is intended to provoke problems in its relations with China, create division and confrontation, and seek to create a ring of containment,” the editorial reads.