Kamala Harris is ready to go to Southeast Asia as U.S.-China tensions rise. This is what to anticipate

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Kamala Harris in March 2021. The U.S. has a protection partnership with Singapore and is the biggest overseas direct investor there. And the U.S. has rising commerce with Vietnam, which opposes China’s huge territorial claims within the South China Sea.

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Photos

SINGAPORE — U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is predicted on Sunday to begin her official go to to Southeast Asia — a area the place China’s economic and political influence has grown lately.

Harris is scheduled to reach in Singapore on Sunday, earlier than heading to Vietnam on Tuesday and departing the area on Thursday.

President Joe Biden has made it a precedence to bolster U.S. standing in Asia, and strengthening ties with Southeast Asian international locations is a vital a part of Washington’s objective to maintain China’s ambitions in examine.

Southeast Asia is residence to greater than 660 million individuals and a few of the fastest-growing growing economies. The area’s strategic significance additionally lies in its proximity to the South China Sea, a significant business delivery route the place trillions of {dollars} of worldwide commerce go by means of annually.

The vice chairman’s go to adopted a number of high-level U.S. engagements with Southeast Asian leaders. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended digital conferences of the Affiliation of Southeast Asian Nations or Asean earlier this month, whereas Protection Secretary Lloyd Austin visited a number of international locations within the area in July, together with Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Biden vs. Trump

The Biden administration is extraordinarily eager to clarify that its engagement with Southeast Asia is way, a lot broader than that one concern …

Angela Mancini

Management Dangers

“The prior administration was very clear on the truth that U.S.-China strategic rivalry was the primary concern that mattered on this area. That typically put international locations ready the place they felt like that they had to decide on sides,” Mancini informed CNBC.

“The Biden administration is extraordinarily eager to clarify that its engagement with Southeast Asia is way, a lot broader than that one concern … that there is quite a lot of different points to sort out together with, for instance, Covid, and that these points are finest addressed by energetic partnership and engagement,” she added.

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The White House said in a statement final month that Harris will interact leaders of Singapore and Vietnam on points starting from regional safety, the Covid-19 pandemic and local weather change.

Former President Donald Trump was criticized for his absence at a few important regional summits in Southeast Asia, which led some political watchers to query U.S. dedication to the area.

That seeming lack of curiosity from the U.S. throughout Trump’s time period coincided with China’s extra aggressive push within the area, by means of applications akin to infrastructure investments underneath Chinese language President Xi Jinping‘s signature Belt and Road Initiative.

U.S. priorities in Southeast Asia

By selecting Singapore and Vietnam for Harris’ first official journey to Southeast Asia, the U.S. confirmed that it prioritizes regional safety and financial alternatives within the area, mentioned Mancini.

The U.S. has a defense partnership with Singapore and is the biggest overseas direct investor within the Asian monetary hub. In the meantime, the U.S. has a rising commerce relationship with Vietnam, which is a vocal opponent of China’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Economically, commerce would have been “essentially the most pure” manner for the U.S. to deepen engagement in Southeast Asia — however U.S. home politics are a critical constraint, mentioned Mancini.

Trump in 2017 pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, a mega commerce pact that concerned 11 different international locations together with these in Southeast Asia. The remaining international locations renegotiated the deal and signed the Complete and Progressive Settlement for Trans-Pacific Partnership or CPTPP in March 2018.  

Alex Feldman, president and chief government of U.S.-ASEAN Enterprise Council, mentioned the U.S. is unlikely to affix the CPTPP within the quick time period. The TPP was extensively criticized within the U.S. and was by no means accepted by Congress.

However the U.S. might strike agreements on the digital economic system with international locations within the broader Asia-Pacific area, Feldman informed CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” final week.

Singapore has digital economy agreements with Australia, in addition to with Chile and New Zealand.

Digital commerce settlement

An settlement that focuses on the digital economic system units digital commerce guidelines and requirements amongst taking part international locations, akin to on the storage of cross-border knowledge and private knowledge safety.

“We predict that … a bilateral settlement with Singapore makes a ton of sense to assist set the principles for the street on the digital economic system, which is more and more changing into the economic system in Asia,” mentioned Feldman, including {that a} bilateral deal might open the door to a bigger, multilateral one sooner or later.  

Whereas there are “sensible reasons” for the U.S. to pursue and lead a brand new digital settlement, Washington could have a tough time convincing different international locations to affix, mentioned Deborah Elms, government director of consultancy Asian Commerce Centre.

Elms defined in a report final week that such agreements are usually not new and the U.S. could be getting into “an more and more crowded panorama.” Offers that embody digital initiatives embody the CPTPP and the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, she famous.   

“The US might want to have a transparent and convincing rationale for beginning over with yet one more commerce association and it might want to present value-add for potential members. In any other case, it might be the case that the US provides to steer the social gathering and discovers few takers,” wrote Elms.