SINGAPORE — Vice President Kamala Harris sought to fortify the image of the United States as a credible ally by offering a sharp rebuke of China during an address on Tuesday in Southeast Asia. Her effort comes as the White House faces growing questions about its reliability as an international partner amid ongoing violence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
“In the South China Sea, we know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” Ms. Harris said in Singapore. She added that China’s “unlawful claims” had continued “to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.”
The White House is aiming to refocus U.S. foreign policy strategy on competing with China’s rising economic influence rather than on continuing to fight “forever wars,” such as the two-decade long conflict in Afghanistan. The chaotic effort to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul has overshadowed the vice president’s trip, which began on Sunday in Singapore and will take her to Vietnam.
Ms. Harris’s overseas trip, her second as vice president, gained heightened urgency in the days before she boarded Air Force Two. The journey had been seen as a chance to bolster economic and security ties with key partners in Singapore and Vietnam, a crucial piece of President Biden’s strategy in the South China Sea. But in the wake of the haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan, her trip became the administration’s first test of the White House efforts to reassure the world that it can still be a trusted international partner.
For Ms. Harris, that has meant reassuring nations in the South China Sea of the administration’s credibility while confronting questions about whether the United States had abandoned its allies in Afghanistan.
That pressure is likely to increase when Ms. Harris arrives in Vietnam. Her senior aides have faced questions about the historical parallel between the U.S. evacuation of American citizens in 1975 from Saigon and the situation in Kabul — replete with scenes of desperate Afghans running behind U.S. military planes, and of American citizens, Afghan allies and their relatives crowded into the Kabul airport and stuck in limbo.
But in Singapore, Ms. Harris has pressed on with her message.
“I am standing here because of our commitment to a longstanding relationship, which is an enduring relationship, with the Indo-Pacific region, with Southeast Asian countries and, in particular, with Singapore,” the vice president said a day earlier alongside Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore during a news conference dominated by questions about Afghanistan. She said that the administration was “singularly focused” on evacuating Americans and Afghan allies from the country.
In a sign of how vast a shadow the situation in Afghanistan had cast over the trip, even Mr. Lee was asked by one of the two local reporters about the U.S. withdrawal.
“We hope Afghanistan does not become an epicenter for terrorism again,” Mr. Lee said. “And post-Afghanistan in the longer term, what matters is how the U.S. repositions itself in the Asia Pacific, engages the broader region and continues the fight against terrorism.”
Ms. Harris’s presence was described by experts as a welcoming sign of renewed focus by the Biden administration in the South China Sea after several Southeast Asian officials in recent months became frustrated over the lack of face-to-face engagement from the United States.
The vice president’s visit came just weeks after the U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin, traveled to Singapore, the anchor of the U.S. naval presence in the region, to reassure Southeast Asian nations of the administration’s investment. China has taken advantage of the United States’ absence by courting nations with visits, loans and coronavirus vaccines.
At a news briefing on Tuesday, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said, “What is happening in Afghanistan now clearly tells people what rules are touted by the United States and what is the so-called order of the United States.”
“The United States always tries to use rules and order to justify its selfishness and bullying,” Mr. Wang said. “But now how many people will believe it?”
The U.S. administration has attempted to strike a balance in the region by countering China’s investment while not forcing the nations to take sides between the two powers. In a nod to Singapore’s efforts to say neutral in the rising tension between Beijing and Washington, Ms. Harris stressed on Tuesday the United States was not trying to “make anyone choose between countries.”
The South China Sea is a major flash point between Beijing and several Southeast Asian countries. Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have all accused China of building and fortifying artificial islands in the area and sending vessels to intimidate their militaries and those who fish.
After Ms. Harris met with Mr. Lee in a closed-door meeting on Monday at the Istana, the presidential palace of Singapore, the vice president’s office announced a series of agreements to address climate change, cybersecurity and the pandemic. The two nations also agreed to increase information sharing on cybersecurity threats to financial markets, cooperate on identifying coronavirus variants and convene industry executives to address supply-chain issues, including a global shortage of semiconductors that are used to build cars and computers that has been a point of concern for the Biden administration.
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Curtis S. Chin, the former United States ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007 to 2011, said those commitments only went so far.
“It’s, of course, an important symbolic trip, but the reality is that what’s more important than these trips is what happens in between,” Mr. Chin said. “That’s why to me what happened in Afghanistan is so important because the reality of U.S. behavior undercuts the rhetoric of U.S. behavior.”
Mr. Chin added, “Our rhetoric is: ‘We are here for a long time. We are steadfast in our engagement.’ The reality is, as Asia well knows from Vietnam to Afghanistan, that rhetoric and reality often do not match.”
Ms. Harris stumbled on rhetoric alone during her first overseas trip, to Guatemala and Mexico, which had been meant to address the factors pushing migrants to flee to the United States, but was instead marred by domestic politics. Her efforts to defend institutions in Central America that aim to root out corruption — one factor pushing vulnerable families to migrate to the United States in record-high numbers — was overshadowed by her fumbled answers on whether she would visit the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I’ve never been to Europe,” Ms. Harris told the NBC anchor Lester Holt. “I don’t understand the point you’re making.”
David Axelrod, a former top adviser to former President Barack Obama, said Ms. Harris faced heightened criticism because she was a clear candidate in the next presidential election.
“She’s relatively new, doesn’t have that experience, so she’s going to be watched closely on these trips,” Mr. Axelrod said of her foreign policy record. “And the Afghanistan situation just added to her burden.”
But the trip to Southeast Asia also presented Ms. Harris with an opportunity to address an issue at the center of rare political consensus in Washington, according to Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
“In contrast to Central America, this is a region of opportunities and strategic opportunities,” said Mr. Connelly. “There’s broad political agreement in the United States to address the rise of China, and this is where you would do that.”
Sui-Lee Wee contributed reporting.