Vice President Harris Heads To Vietnam As The Shadow Of Afghanistan Looms

Aug 20, 2021
Originally published on August 20, 2021 8:05 am

Vice President Harris on Friday will travel to Singapore and Vietnam with the goal of cementing U.S. relationships in the region against the rising influence of China.

The trip has long been in the works but is now complicated by the chaotic and messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is drawing dire comparisons to the fall of Saigon in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

A senior administration official said Harris will continue to be briefed on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan during her time abroad.

"Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific are really important and that's why she's going," the official said. "We can do more than one thing at a time and we're going to do more than one thing at a time as we focus on these two huge priorities for the United States."

Still, Afghanistan is a major crisis for the administration. Democrats and Republicans have been deeply critical of the White House's handling of the evacuation of Americans and Afghans who helped the U.S. military.

Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement during the Obama administration, said Harris will not be able to escape the shadow of the situation in Afghanistan.

"It's the elephant in the room and it is going to walk thunderously behind her every step of her trip in Vietnam," Bruen said.

Bruen argued that Harris has the opportunity to help restore trust in the U.S., but it will take meaningful action from the administration and not just rhetoric.

Harris, the first Asian American vice president, will kick off her trip in Singapore, where she will give a major speech outlining the United States' commitment to the region.

In Vietnam, Harris will help launch a regional office for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and hold talks with leaders about responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Administration officials declined to say whether Harris will make any big announcements on vaccines or economic deals.

The officials also pushed back against the idea that the situation in Afghanistan would affect U.S. relationships elsewhere in Asia, saying that the challenges in the countries are very different.

This is Harris' second foreign trip as vice president. Her first outing in Central America received some negative reviews from U.S. media.

Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said this trip is a chance for Harris to build up her policy credentials in a critical region.

"You've got to get your feet wet in Asia or nothing else matters," Poling said. "So, this is a big opportunity for her, but it's also a risk if it doesn't go great."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Vice President Kamala Harris is leaving tonight for Southeast Asia. As all administrations do, the Biden administration is pressing ahead with normal business amid the chaos in Afghanistan. But it may be hard to forget the evacuation from Kabul when Harris visits Vietnam, where the U.S. and its allies retreated from Communist forces in 1975. NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe joins us now. Good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's the purpose of the trip?

RASCOE: This is Harris' second foreign trip, and it was in the works long before the Taliban took over Afghanistan. A reminder - Harris is the first Asian American to be vice president, and she's now visiting Asia. A senior administration official said the trip was critical and that it needed to happen, but Harris will continue to be briefed on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. The administration is really trying to turn to Asia to counter China. The official said that Harris' top priority will be making clear the U.S. is committed to the region and will be there long term. She'll start in Singapore, where she will give a major speech on how the U.S. plans to engage in the region. In Vietnam, Harris will help launch a regional office for the CDC and hold talks about responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

INSKEEP: OK, but how does the event in Afghanistan - how do the events in Afghanistan affect this?

RASCOE: Afghanistan will definitely have an impact on the trip. It really threatens to overshadow it, especially domestically. I talked to Brett Bruen, who was director of global engagement during the Obama administration. He said that Afghanistan will be the elephant in the room, thundering behind Harris throughout her trip in Vietnam. Bruen said part of what Harris will need to do is to reassure allies that U.S. words actually hold weight, but that will take meaningful action.

BRETT BRUEN: She could help to restore confidence. She could help to study the shift. And I think it is this mixture of both strong words and strong deeds.

RASCOE: Administration officials wouldn't say whether Harris will make any big announcements on vaccines or other key issues. And administration officials also pushed back against the idea that the situation in Afghanistan would affect its relationships elsewhere in Asia and said that the challenges in the regions are very different.

INSKEEP: Now, what does the trip mean for Harris herself?

RASCOE: This is going to be a tightrope for Harris - not within the countries themselves, where she's likely going to be received very warmly.

INSKEEP: Sure.

RASCOE: But she also has to think about how she's going to be viewed by audiences in the U.S. Her first outing in Central America included some media stumbles. And she's going to do a press conference. I talked to Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and he said that this is a chance for Harris to build up her foreign policy cred in a really critical region.

INSKEEP: China is the peer competitor. China is the patient threat. Well, you've got to get your feet wet in Asia or nothing else matters.

RASCOE: So this is a big opportunity for Harris on a very big stage. But there's also a risk for her if there are any missteps.

INSKEEP: Ayesha, thanks.

RASCOE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe.

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