Harris will have the opportunity to be more assertive in foreign affairs during her Friday trip that includes stops in Singapore, Vietnam and Singapore. Harris will be able to speak out about core American values like human rights, which she and President Joe Biden consider fundamental. That's especially important given concerns about the future for women and girls in Afghanistan with the Taliban back in power.
There are significant risks. Harris, a long-serving district attorney and ex-senator, is not well-versed in diplomacy or foreign policy. She could make unwelcome comparisons between the humiliating withdrawal by U.S troops from Vietnam in 1975 and the turbulent effort this week to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan. It's all taking place in the shadows of China, whose increasing influence is worrying some U.S. policymakers.
Brett Bruen, who served as the Obama administration's global engagement director and a veteran diplomat, said that she is "walking into a hornet’s nest" with the events in Afghanistan and the threat of China. It walks a tightrope on a good day. It can walk a tightrope and lead an elephant across, but on a bad day it might be walking a tightrope. From the moment Air Force Two arrives, there are a lot of problems she will face.
Harris was unable to complete her first major overseas trip in June, which took her to Guatemalan and Mexican. Her unequivocal warning to migrants not to come to the U.S. angered some liberal Democrats while doing little to mollify Republican critics who said the administration wasn't doing enough to address a growth of crossings at the southern border.
When she arrives in Singapore as the anchor of the U.S. navy presence in Southeast Asia, she'll get a new chance to make an international impression.
Harris will talk with Singapore President Halimah Yancob by phone Monday. He will also participate in a bilateral meeting and give remarks about a U.S. combat vessel visiting Singapore.
She will deliver a speech on Tuesday outlining the U.S. vision of engagement in the region and take part in an event with business leaders focusing on supply chain issues.
Harris will then travel to Vietnam, which holds symbolic and strategic significance for the U.S. There, leaders have voiced concern about China's rise and how it could affect global security. It's also a nation that American history has etched as the scene of another costly, bloody war with an untimely end.
The vice president will probably address this parallel during her joint press conference in Singapore with the prime minister on Monday. Harris is in a difficult position because Biden in July explicitly rejected any comparisons between Afghanistan or Vietnam. She said there would be no "situation" in which the world would see people being lifted from the U.S Embassy in Kabul. This reference was to historical images of a helicopter fleeing the U.S Embassy in Saigon in 1975.
Although Washington's recent focus has been on the Afghan war's disorderly end, Harris' trip may be more focused on China. Biden has made China counter-influential a key focus of his foreign policies. The relations between the U.S.A and China have deteriorated dramatically under Donald Trump's predecessor. Both sides continue to be at odds over a variety of issues, including cybersecurity and human rights.
With Beijing's intrusions into the disputed South China Sea region, the Biden administration's diplomatic goals and military objectives in the region are based on engagement with Vietnam's and Singapore's.
David Shear, an ex-ambassador of the United States to Vietnam, stated that Harris should be careful to send a positive message to all nations and not solely focus on China.
He said, "Our relationships are important in their own right, and they don’t want to be seen solely as a piece in a U.S.-China chess match." They want to be treated on their terms and their interests considered.
Analysts say that Harris will instead be focusing on trade issues. The White House is considering a new digital trade agreement with the countries of the region. This would allow for free data flow and provide opportunities for U.S. businesses to work together on emerging technologies in this fast-growing area of the world.
COVID-19 will be a top priority in these two countries with starkly different virus trends. Singapore has only experienced a handful of pandemic-related deaths, and it has a high vaccination rate. It is preparing to relax travel restrictions and economic restrictions in the fall. Vietnam is currently facing record-high coronavirus infection rates due to the delta variant of the virus and low vaccination rates.
The United States has supplied more than 23,000,000 vaccine doses to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. They also spent tens of million dollars on personal protective equipment and laboratory equipment to combat the virus.
Harris will host a virtual meeting of ASEAN health ministers during her Vietnam visit. She will also mention the opening of a regional U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office. Gregory Poling, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at The Center for Strategic and International Studies said that Harris' visit is based on showing commitment to the region in relation to the pandemic.
He said that he believes COVID is where the administration recognizes the single issue. "If they are not considered to be leading vaccine distribution in Asia, then they have no other role or will find an audience for it."