Taiwan and China differ on VP Harris’s Southeast Asian Trip

China continues to describe Harris’s trip to Vietnam and Singapore as a failure. According to The China Daily, she failed to convince either country of its economic blueprint for the region or of the US’s neutrality.

Although Harris visited the region to look for potential partners for the Quad (a loose strategic partnership among the US, India, Japan and Australia) in Southeast Asia, she did not get any assurance from either Singapore or Vietnam, so she tried to smear China…

ASEAN members, including Singapore and Vietnam, are reluctant to choose sides and instead want to maintain friendly relations with both China and the US.

ASEAN’s goal is to maintain peace and promote common development in the region. Hence, even if some ASEAN members may welcome the US’ increasing presence as a security guarantee, they would still prefer to leave economic policy to ASEAN decision-makers.

Also, ASEAN wants to maintain its centrality in regional cooperation, by limiting the US’ involvement in the region. And since the US’ attempt to isolate China from Southeast Asia can harm ASEAN members’ interests, the US’ plan could face opposition from ASEAN.

…[T]he US-led Indo-Pacific alliance network could pose a threat to ASEAN’s centrality in the region

…[G]iven that the US only pays lip service to ASEAN, for it offers to help the regional bloc to tap into the huge demand for infrastructure, Southeast Asian countries favor China’s win-win solution. As such, the US faces an uphill task in trying to consolidate its foothold and expand its influence in the region to check China’s rise.   

In Taiwanese media, the perception was almost perfectly the opposite:

In the short term, the turbulent pullout from Kabul may have dented U.S. credibility and been an unwelcome sight for America’s allies

By visiting Vietnam and Singapore, Harris sent a strong signal that these countries, and ASEAN more broadly, are at the center of the post-Afghanistan renewed U.S. focus on Asia. Harris was clear about what the U.S. mission is in the region and did not mince words criticizing China for its hegemonic attitude towards its neighbors.

Though Harris’ tour of Southeast Asia sent important signals, the follow-up will determine its impact over the long term. This is especially true given that despite supportive rhetoric from both the Trump and Obama administrations, visits by American leaders to Southeast Asia have been infrequent…

One of the key messages from Harris was that the U.S. focus on the region will cater to the region’s economy rather than a zero-sum security focus on China.

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