US Vice President Kamala Harris takes part in a roundtable at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore

Southeast Asia allies express concern over US commitment amid Afghanistan crisis

Yun Sun, a co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, discussed these issues with The World's host, Marco Werman.

The World

US Vice President Kamala Harris takes part in a roundtable at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore before departing for Vietnam on the second leg of her Southeast Asia trip, Aug. 24, 2021.

Evelyn Hockstein/AP/Pool photo

Vice President Kamala Harris warned against China's coercion and intimidation while in Singapore during her two-nation trip to Southeast Asia. She is now in Vietnam, and part of her mission is to reassure allies of the US commitment to the region.

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But the task could come as a tall order as global attention is now focused on the unfolding chaos in Afghanistan, raising questions about US loyalty.

"Does the fall of Afghanistan 20 years after the US started military operations there change your calculus on how you can rely on America as a partner in this region, both militarily and economically?" Nandita Bose of Reuters raised during Harris' news conference with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

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The World's host Marco Werman discussed this question and other issues around the vice president's trip with Yun Sun, who is a co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

Marco Werman: Singapore's prime minister was pretty diplomatic when he said that what matters is how the US repositions itself in the region. Still, there is no avoiding it, the chaos in Afghanistan has really muddied Vice President Harris' message and mission, it seems.​​
Yun Sun: Yeah, well this diplomatic trip by Vice President Harris certainly has come at a very unfortunate time, because all the attention is being focused on the messy and chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan. And the thing for the countries in Southeast Asia, and for the region as a whole, the primary question, or the primary impression that people get is that, is the US commitment still credible? That if the US can just drop Afghanistan in the moment and just pack up and leave, then what does that mean for US commitments in other parts of the world? And should countries in the region still trust when the US says that we are on your side and we're here to help you? So, I think that is the most important ramification for Vice President Harris' trip, and coming from this Afghanistan experience, as in the region certainly has a lot of questions.
Which countries need to be reassured of the US commitment to the region and what kind of actions are they looking for proof of that commitment?
I would say overall, the region has a relatively cynical attitude about US commitment. But I mean, for countries, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, these two countries need the most US reassurance and US support.
And what is that reassurance going to look like when the US provides it? What will make Vietnam and the Philippines happy, for example?
So, I think what the Philippines would like to see is that, if there is indeed a further escalation of dispute with China in the South China Sea because of their maritime dispute, they want to see US actions. They want to see the US taking a solid stance that the US is on Manila's side. And I would say the same thing with Vietnam, although Vietnam is a more complicated case, not because of its relationship with the United States and the wars that we fought in Vietnam, but because Vietnam is still governed by a communist party, and that communist party inevitably shares a certain level of ideological affinity, or loyalty, with the Chinese Communist Party. So, I think the Vietnamese would like to see US security support on the issue of the South China Sea, but they also want the US to stay out of their domestic politics.
Some experts say the US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be a good thing in regards to relations between the US and nations in Southeast Asia. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that is a very good argument, because one of the motivations for the withdrawal from Afghanistan is that, while now the priority for the US national security strategy is a great power competition with China. And the other to deal more effectively with China, we need as much resources as we can garner. So, I think from that perspective, the withdrawal from Afghanistan at least, is partially incentivized and motivated by the desire to better compete with China. And given the Biden administration's focus on the multilateral coalition, I think the withdrawal from Afghanistan will certainly strengthen the US ability to rally support and to coordinate positions to better and more effectively compete with China.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

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