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In visit to ASEAN, can Kamala Harris restore confidence in the alliance after Afghan debacle?

US Vice President Kamala Harris (Photo: IANS)

The US Vice President, Kamala Harris is in south-east Asia at a difficult time for America–with credibility at an all-time low and its military reputation in tatters. Allies are wondering if Washington's lodestar is dimming and whether it can be relied upon in case of regional tensions and conflicts.

Harris' visit takes place as Afghanistan crumbles under the military weight of Taliban militants after two decades of US support to Kabul. The hasty and undignified withdrawal also puts a question mark on American commitment to its allies.

With south-east Asia also simmering with tensions owing to China's liberal use of its air and naval forces to intimidate neighbours, countries in the region are wondering if the US can be relied upon in case a conflict arises with China. The latter has made no bones about the fact that it would take Taiwan by force. Other countries feel that if China attacks Taiwan, Japan too may not be far behind.

Both Taiwan and Japan have separately raised the Chinese issue with the US many times, with Tokyo saying that the US and Japan may have to intervene militarily if Beijing launches an incursion onto Taiwan. With Afghan unravelling, American allies–Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and, south-east Asia are wondering if the US has the stomach to take on Chinese hegemony.

Harris's visit is to reassure allies and inspire confidence among them about American interest in the region.

At a press conference in Singapore on Monday, she said that the US' immediate priority is to evacuate American citizens, Afghan allies and other vulnerable sections of the society. She said: "We have a responsibility and we feel a deep commitment to making sure that folks who helped us are safe”.

Her talks with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong were on issues close to the Biden administration–tackling climate change, building reliable supply chains and reinvigorating the coronavirus-afflicted economy.

Lee hailed US intervention in Afghanistan by saying that it was able to halt the terror groups for 20 years but added that the country should not once again become an epicentre for terrorism.

Harris will land in Vietnam on Tuesday–a country which has been in news over visual comparisons of US helicopters evacuating Americans from its embassy in Saigon in 1975 and the chaotic American pullout of its people from Kabul.

Comparisons can be misleading considering Vietnam has pulled itself together after the American conflict to become a reliable middle power while Afghanistan remains bitterly divided among ethnicities, tribes and fundamentalist ideologies.

Washington has showered importance on the region by talking about "ASEAN centrality".

Harris' visit to Singapore and Vietnam was preceded by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin who visited Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in late July. His visit was about military and security issues, with the US assuaging the regional nations about keeping vital shipping lanes open and safe from Chinese threat. He had a breakthrough in signing a pact with the Philippines about maintaining bases for American troops.

Harris' visit is about strengthening partnerships through American Covid-19 vaccines, thought to be better than the Chinese ones, bolstering IT and technology cooperation as well as cementing bilateral ties. The idea is to not just checkmate Chinese military ambitions in the region but also prove through relationships, trade and technology that the US is reliable and ahead in the geopolitical game.