Vice President Harris’s travel to Southeast Asia took place at the same time as the fall of the Afghan government and a devastating assault on U.S. troops that resulted in the deaths of 13 Americans and a large number of Afghan civilians. It was difficult to locate news of her visit in the United States media, which was understandably preoccupied with the happenings in Afghanistan.
However, in an unexpected manner, the tour served to underline an argument that the Biden administration has been advancing: Afghanistan is not our greatest concern. The United States has much more serious national security and economic challenges in other parts of the world, particularly in Asia. Indeed, there has been talk of a “pivot to Asia” for more than two decades, but as long as we were spending billions of dollars to fight a war that was never going to be won, previous administrations were unable to devote their attention to China and our Asian alliances, no matter how hard they tried.
Harris’s journey was hardly a certain conclusion. Her first journey outside of the Americas might have been to Europe or the Middle East, depending on her interests. Southeast Asia was her destination of choice instead, despite her worries about covid-19. According to State Department officials, as the situation in Afghanistan worsened, the question of whether she should go arose. She ultimately decided to stay. Harris came out firmly in support of the motion. Officials in Singapore and Vietnam expressed delight that she had kept the trip on schedule, both privately and publicly, both in Singapore and Vietnam. Withdrawing from a 20-year conflict would have sent the incorrect signal, implying that the government was on the defensive or did not care as much about our future relationship with Asia as it did about the war itself.
When asked about Vietnam, Harris could point to a number of significant “deliverables,” such as help with Covid-19, new pledges on renewable energy, security cooperation, and tariff reductions, as examples. A time when the United States media was comparing the fall of Kabul to the fall of Saigon, this served as a reminder that the United States did not fight a futile war in Vietnam for an endless period of time. As a result, we have progressed, and our influence in the area is now greater than it was in the 1970s.
In Vietnam, reporters naturally inquired about Afghanistan, but the focus of the whole event was on strengthening ties with the country on a variety of fronts, including trade and investment. Since diplomatic ties with Vietnam were established in 1995, I am the first Vice President to visit the country. And I think that this journey marks the beginning of the next chapter in the history of the relationship between the United States and Vietnam,” Harris said. This was in striking contrast to the image that the media portrayed of the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan, which suggested that the United States had shook friends and generated doubts about the country’s intentions.
In her talks with Vietnam, she also brought up the issue of human rights. She said that she informally pressed authorities on political dissidents and called attention to civil society actors in the process. During her press conference, she said that “we will not shy away from tough discussions.” Her last day in the United States was devoted to problems of worker rights and civil freedoms, according to NPR, which described her as “elevating campaigners in an area of the globe renowned for its difficulties and limitations to human rights.” Harris took part in what her team dubbed a “changemakers” event, which brought together activists working on issues such as LGBTQ rights and climate change, the article said. Perhaps claims of a declining interest in human rights are premature — or just incorrect — in their conclusions.