“What has happened in Afghanistan has been quite frustrating and upsetting for a lot of countries,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Centre think tank. “The concern is one day when the United States determines you are no longer as important, they can just pack up and leave and there is nothing you can do about it.”
“And of course there’s China trying to capitalise on that narrative.”
Vietnam has been a vocal opponent of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and Singapore shares concerns about Beijing’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region.
They and other south-east Asian countries have welcomed the American military presence there given China’s militarisation of the disputed maritime corridor, and its vast coast guard and fishing fleet.
The US Navy has maintained a steady pattern of freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea and near Taiwan, but those appear to have done little to discourage Beijing.
The senior administration official said Washington was confident the United States’ Indo-Pacific allies saw it as a “steadfast partner” and Harris would emphasise that on her trip.
The official said south-east Asia and the Indo-Pacific were priorities for the Biden administration and “that hasn’t changed with Afghanistan”.
“There’s a difference between ensuring open sea lanes in Asia, which is a priority for the United States, and the continued involvement in another country’s civil war,” he said.
She’s scheduled to meet with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday and take part in a meeting on supply chain resilience. In Hanoi, she will launch the south-east Asia regional office of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among the top priorities for both sides is filling the economic void left by the Trump administration’s withdrawal of the trade agreement now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, CPTPP, which includes four south-east Asian nations. Under Biden, the US is discussing proposals for a digital trade deal covering Indo-Pacific economies as a possible avenue to check China’s influence.
At the same time, Harris would continue to work on issues tied to Afghanistan during her trip, the official said adding: “We can do more than one thing at a time.”
Some experts point to a silver lining from the withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying it could enable Washington to free up resources from a counter-terrorism mission and focus more on countering Beijing.
“The shift to deterring and preparing for a conflict with a near-peer competitor will be accelerated as the counter-terrorism mindset recedes,” said Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, referring to China.
Others warn that the chaos in Kabul could at least delay that shift.