September 29, 2022

US Vice President Kamala Harris will give a speech on August 24, 2021 at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore before setting off on the second leg of her Asia trip to Vietnam.

Evelyn Hockstein | AFP | Getty Images

SINGAPORE – Vice President Kamala Harris called for Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea on Tuesday, trying to reassure countries in Asia that they don’t have to choose between the US and China.

“We know Beijing continues to enforce, intimidate and claim most of the South China Sea,” Harris said in a speech in Singapore during her first official visit to Southeast Asia.

“These unlawful claims were rejected by the 2016 arbitration tribunal decision, and Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations,” she added. “The United States stands by our allies and partners in the face of these threats.”

China claims almost the entire South China Sea – but a tribunal at the Permanent Arbitration Court dismissed this lawsuit in 2016 as legally unfounded.

The South China Sea is a resource-rich waterway that is a major merchant shipping route, carrying trillions of dollars of world trade every year. In addition to China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines are other territorial claimants in the sea.

But Beijing ignored the tribunal’s verdict and even increased its presence in recent years by dispatching ships to patrol the waters and build artificial islands.

Harris said the US wants to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific – a region that generally refers to the area that lies between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Competition between the US and China

Southeast Asia, at the heart of the Indo-Pacific, has been right in the thick of it in recent years as the rivalry between the US and China intensified.

The US has been an important presence in Southeast Asia for decades through its security and economic engagements, but China’s aggressive enforcement of programs such as its Belt and Road Initiative has increased Beijing’s influence in the region.

I have to make it clear: our engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not directed against a single country, nor is it designed to give anyone a choice between countries.

Kamala Harris

US Vice President

Harris assured countries in the region that the US would not choose between Washington and Beijing.

“I have to make it clear: our engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not directed against a single country, nor is it designed to give anyone a choice between countries,” she said.

The Vice President also stressed that the US remains committed to the region, despite criticism of President Joe Biden’s handling of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. She reiterated her comment on Monday that the US was “laser-focused” on evacuation efforts.

According to David Adelman, a former US ambassador to Singapore, who spoke to CNBC after Harris’ speech on Tuesday, Asian countries had to balance an emerging China and the US, which was a “security guarantor” in the region.

Countries in Asia would want tensions between the US and China to calm down – but that will take “some time,” he told CNBC’s Capital Connection.

“There won’t be a dramatic breakthrough,” said Adelman, who is now the managing director and general counsel of asset management company KraneShares.

“It will be done gradually, starting with confidence-building measures, and slowly easing some of the trade war that developed during the Trump administration and returning to – I think – a more normal Beijing-Washington relationship,” he added.

Harris arrived in Singapore on Sunday and is scheduled to leave for Vietnam on Tuesday afternoon before leaving the region on Thursday. Her visit to the region followed several high-level U.S. engagements with Southeast Asian leaders.

Foreign Minister Antony Blinken attended virtual meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) earlier this month; while Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited several countries in the region in July, including Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.