Exploring Kamala Harris’ Outreach to Southeast Asia

Vice President Kamala Harris is embarking on her third trip to Southeast Asia and fourth to Asia overall. With her repeated visits to the region and her engagement with countries in Southeast Asia, Harris has positioned herself as a key interlocutor for the Democratic administration. These efforts are aimed at bolstering a network of partnerships to counterbalance Chinese influence in the region. Harris’ latest journey to Jakarta, Indonesia, for an international summit is an opportunity for her to further strengthen her foreign policy credentials while addressing doubts about U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia caused by President Joe Biden’s absence.

The decision of President Joe Biden to skip the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit has caused some frustration, especially given his upcoming visits to India and Vietnam around the same time. Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s former foreign affairs minister, acknowledges that ASEAN is struggling to convince world leaders of its central role in the region. Despite representing more than 650 million people across 10 nations with the world’s fifth-largest economy, ASEAN has failed to resolve civil strife in Myanmar and address territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Additionally, internal disagreements persist within ASEAN over the United States-China rivalry, with some members seeking closer ties with Washington while others align closely with Beijing.

The Biden administration counters the notion that skipping the ASEAN summit is a snub to the organization or the region. The administration emphasizes its commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and points to the fact that President Biden hosted the first Washington summit with ASEAN leaders in 2021. White House national security spokesman John Kirby further dismisses claims of walking away from ASEAN, highlighting Vice President Harris’ focus on strengthening alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. The administration sees Harris’ presence at the ASEAN summit as a demonstration of continued attention and engagement with countries in the region.

While President Biden’s absence may be disappointing to some, Vice President Harris’ presence at the ASEAN summit holds significance. As an influential representative of the United States, her attendance showcases the country’s commitment to Southeast Asia. Harris’s engagement with countries in Southeast Asia positions her as a key diplomatic figure in the region. Ja-Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science, emphasizes the importance of Harris’ presence, stating that sending the vice president demonstrates attention and ensures that the United States covers its bases even if the summit does not yield major breakthroughs.

The ongoing tensions in the South China Sea have added urgency to the discussions at the ASEAN summit. Beijing’s release of a new official map emphasizing its territorial claims in the South China Sea has intensified the dispute. Other nations, considering the waters to be part of their territory or international byways, have condemned this move. The South China Sea is a critical crossroads for global trade, and the aggressive approach taken by the People’s Republic of China has created an opportunity for the United States to forge stronger partnerships in the region.

Vice President Harris has made countering Chinese influence a focal point of her visits to Asia. During her previous trips to Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand, Harris has highlighted the actions of China that challenge freedom of the seas and coerce and intimidate its neighbors. By addressing these concerns and affirming U.S. support for regional partners, Harris aims to build a stronger network of alliances in the face of China’s growing influence.

Vice President Kamala Harris’ outreach to Southeast Asia through her visits and engagements with regional leaders demonstrates the Biden administration’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. Her presence at the ASEAN summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, provides an opportunity to strengthen partnerships and address doubts about U.S. commitment to the region. While President Biden’s absence may have raised concerns, Vice President Harris’ role as a key interlocutor lends credibility to the administration’s efforts to counterbalance Chinese influence. The ongoing tensions in the South China Sea further underscore the need for active engagement in the region. Harris’ focus on countering Chinese influence and building alliances reflects the administration’s view of China as the top foreign policy challenge for the United States. As Harris continues her diplomatic endeavors, Southeast Asia remains a critical region for the United States to strengthen partnerships, protect freedom of navigation, and maintain stability in the Indo-Pacific.


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