Harris in Vietnam
The streets of Hanoi would have been empty when Kamala Harris was there last week. The city’s five million people are under lockdown as Vietnam, which has the lowest vaccination rate in Southeast Asia, grapples with the spread of the Delta variant.
Events in Afghanistan increased the scrutiny on Harris, a potential future president with relatively little foreign policy experience. The tour of Singapore and Vietnam was her second foray abroad as VP. When she went to Guatemala and Mexico in June, she was criticised for telling would-be migrants not to attempt the journey to the US, and for deflecting questions about why she hadn’t visited the US-Mexico border by saying she’d ‘never been to Europe’ either.
From Tatler Asia I learn that Harris stayed at the Shangri-La in Singapore; from the New York Times that she wore Altuzarra. In Singapore she discussed supply chain resilience and cyber security, visited US sailors at the Changi Naval Base, ate rojak and idli sambar, offered to host an Asia-Pacific forum on economic co-operation, and accepted a spray of hybrid orchids that had been named after her. In Vietnam she announced USAID funding for Covid-19 and climate change measures, opened a regional office of the Centres for Disease Control, signed the lease for a new $1.2 billion embassy, and declared the need to counter Beijing’s ‘bullying and excessive maritime claims’ in the South China Sea.
Ten years ago, Barack Obama said at a White House press conference with Hu Jintao: ‘I absolutely believe that China’s peaceful rise is good for the world, and it’s good for America.’ How things have changed. At his first formal news conference as president on 25 March 2021, Joe Biden vowed that China would not succeed in becoming ‘the most powerful country in the world … on my watch’. Xi Jinping, with whom Biden spent time when both were vice president, ‘doesn’t have a democratic – with a small “d” – bone in his body’. ‘Your children or grandchildren,’ Biden told the assembled reporters, ‘are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake, not just with China.’
Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described China in 2019 as ‘the primary challenge to US national security over the next fifty to one hundred years’. Evan Medeiros, the China director at the National Security Council during Obama’s first term, has expressed regret that the US did not identify sooner how different Xi would be as a leader from Hu – more aggressive, more nationalistic, less willing to go along with the US-led international order – and shift its approach accordingly.
Ryan Hass, however, Medeiros’s successor in Obama’s second term, has lamented the way in which China has become ‘the policy equivalent of duct tape’. The spectre of Chinese competition is invoked no matter the problem at hand: domestic hyper-partisanship, shoring up Nato, passing industrial policy in the Senate.
Casting US competition with China in ideological terms, as an existential struggle between autocracy and democracy, is probably a mistake. China hasn’t shown much interest in exporting its political system to other nations. Talk of a ‘new cold war’ undermines America’s ability to form third-country alliances, and contributes to anti-Asian racism at home.
Kaiser Kuo, the presenter of the Sinica podcast, has ‘half joked’ that the US and China ‘both have their own versions of exceptionalism’. The former holds that American values and institutions are timeless and universal, applicable to all people, in all circumstances; the latter that Chinese values are so deeply rooted in historical experience and distinctive civilisational qualities as not to apply to anyone or anywhere else.
In a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, Thomas Pepinsky and Jessica Chen Weiss argue that China’s influence abroad tends to be ‘transactional and coercive’ rather than ideological: Beijing has ‘found it easier to manage relations with Malaysia and the Philippines, two multiparty noncommunist regimes’, than with Vietnam, despite its ‘single-party authoritarian regime, officially communist in orientation’.
Harris laid flowers at the site where John McCain’s aircraft was shot down by North Vietnamese forces. Meghan McCain, the late senator’s daughter and a conservative media personality, was unmoved. Harris sometimes laughs reflexively in the face of thorny questions, as she did on the tarmac in Singapore when asked about Afghanistan. Republican critics are quick to attack her for it. ‘This may be some kind of real issue (like Joaquin phoenix in the joker),’ McCain tweeted, ‘but she’s the Vice President and she’s hand ample time and resources to media train herself.’
Despite the awkward timing, observers have suggested that the selection of Vietnam and Singapore for Harris’s trip was diplomatic softball, reflecting ‘underlying weaknesses in its approach to Asia’. Both nations were visited by the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, in July. As Susannah Patton and Ashley Townshend point out in Foreign Policy, they are strategically sympathetic to US priorities: ‘Singapore is the only country in Southeast Asia that gives the United States reliable military access … Vietnam has been the country in the region most willing to overtly defy China.’ Had Harris gone elsewhere, ‘Washington would have had to put much more on the table to secure a warm welcome.’
Indonesia is the largest country in the region, home to 40 per cent of the ASEAN population. An editorial in the Jakarta Post last Tuesday, reflecting on the reasons Harris wouldn’t be visiting, vacillated between wryness – ‘It is impossible that Biden is unfamiliar with Indonesia,’ given that the previous month he had warned of the danger of its sinking into the sea – and grievance: ‘Two successive snubs by Washington’s top officials are truly an embarrassment for Indonesia, unless Biden has something bigger on his mind, which is almost impossible.’
Harris’s flight to Vietnam from Singapore was delayed by several hours because of reports of suspected cases of Havana syndrome at the US embassy in Hanoi. It was enough time for China to send its ambassador to the Vietnamese prime minister, Pham Minh Chinh, to announce a donation of two million vaccine doses, casting shade on the million Pfizer shots Harris was on her way to give. ‘Việt Nam consistently pursues the foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, multilateralisation and diversification of ties,’ state media reported after receiving the Chinese envoy. ‘Việt Nam does not ally with one country to fight against another.’ China is the largest trading partner of eight of the ten ASEAN nations. Even for the US, China is third, another limiting factor in any re-emergence of Cold War-style tension.
Sebastian Strangio, the author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, observes that the framing of US-China relations as an ideological struggle has failed to gain traction in the region because Southeast Asian nations do not idealise American power the way Americans do. They remember the cost of establishing the so-called liberal international order in Indochina, and US support for authoritarian governments. If anything they share China’s ‘zeal’ for national sovereignty and principles of non-interference, a taste significantly inculcated by Western imperialism. At times that tendency inclines them towards China and away from the US. At others, the direction is reversed.