Vice President Harris on Friday will travel to Singapore and Vietnam with the goal of cementing U.S. relationships in the region against the rising influence of China.
The trip has long been in the works, but is now complicated by the chaotic and messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is drawing dire comparisons to the fall of Saigon in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
A senior administration official said that Harris will continue to be briefed on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan during her time abroad.
“Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific are really important and that’s why she’s going,” the official said. “We can do more than one thing at a time and we’re going to do more than one thing at a time, as we focus on these two huge priorities for the United States.”
Still, Afghanistan is a major crisis for the administration. Democrats and Republicans have been deeply critical of the White House’s handling of the evacuation of Americans and Afghans who helped the U.S. military.
Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement during the Obama administration, said Harris will not be able to escape the shadow of the situation in Afghanistan.
“It’s the elephant in the room and it is going to walk thunderously behind her every step of her trip in Vietnam,” Bruen said.
Bruen argued that Harris has the opportunity to help restore trust in the U.S., but it will take meaningful action from the administration and not just rhetoric.
Harris, the first Asian American vice president, will kick off her trip in Singapore, where she will give a major speech outlining the United States’ commitment to the region.
In Vietnam, Harris will help launch a regional office for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and hold talks with leaders about responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
Administration officials declined to say whether Harris will make any big announcements on vaccines or economic deals.
The officials also pushed back against the idea that the situation in Afghanistan would affect U.S. relationships elsewhere in Asia, saying that the challenges in the countries are very different.
This is Harris’ second foreign trip as vice president. Her first outing in Central America received some negative reviews from U.S. media.
Gregory Poling, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this trip is a chance for Harris to build up her policy credentials in a critical region.
“You’ve got to get your feet wet in Asia or nothing else matters,” Poling said. “So, this is a big opportunity for her, but it’s also a risk if it doesn’t go great.”
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