Vice President Kamala Harris Engages in Diplomatic Outreach Amid Questions and Internal Issues at Southeast Asia Conference

by Sophia Chen
Kamala Harris Southeast Asia Summit

Vice President Kamala Harris is set to expand her diplomatic initiatives in Southeast Asia during an international conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. Her presence aims to dispel concerns about the United States’ dedication to the region, concerns that have been heightened due to President Joe Biden’s non-participation.

This marks Harris’ third diplomatic mission to Southeast Asia and her fourth to the Asian continent as a whole, making it the region she has visited most frequently. Her consistent engagement, along with meetings she has convened in Washington, establishes her as a pivotal diplomatic figure for the Biden administration, especially in counterbalancing China’s regional influence.

In the political landscape, this latest excursion serves as an avenue for Harris to solidify her international relations expertise, particularly as she heads into a politically challenging year. Republican contenders have criticized her, suggesting she lacks the experience to assume the presidency should Biden, the oldest serving U.S. president, be unable to complete a second term.

White House National Security Spokesman John Kirby stated that Harris has made strengthening alliances in the Indo-Pacific a cornerstone of her vice-presidential responsibilities. Her current itinerary aligns well with her established focus areas, he noted.

However, President Biden’s decision to not attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting has stirred discontent, especially since he will be visiting India and Vietnam contemporaneously. His physical proximity makes the absence even more conspicuous, according to Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Natalegawa admitted that ASEAN itself is grappling with its own internal limitations, including the inability to resolve the civil unrest in Myanmar and stagnation in negotiations concerning the South China Sea. The organization, representing over 650 million people and the world’s fifth-largest economy, has been ineffective at rallying international leaders to its cause.

John Kirby rejected the notion that Biden’s absence indicates a withdrawal of U.S. interest in the region, pointing out that Biden hosted the inaugural Washington summit with ASEAN leaders last year.

Ja-Ian Chong, Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, noted that Harris’ attendance serves to maintain U.S. engagement in a conference that may not yield significant progress on key matters.

Harris is due to leave on Monday morning and will engage in two days of intensive meetings in Jakarta. While her schedule has yet to be released, she is expected to partake in conference events and engage in bilateral discussions with select foreign dignitaries.

Following Harris’ return, President Biden will travel to India to participate in the annual G-20 summit, an assembly of the world’s most economically powerful nations. Subsequently, he plans to visit Vietnam to further cement relations with the emerging economic powerhouse.

Gregory B. Poling, Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that while the administration’s choices may be regrettable, they are not necessarily erroneous given their circumstances.

Tensions are surging in the backdrop of the Jakarta conference, especially in the South China Sea, following China’s release of a new territorial map, aggravating other nations who dispute these territorial claims. This strategic maritime zone is pivotal for international trade.

Analysts and U.S. officials opine that China’s assertive postures in the region present Washington with an opportunity to forge stronger relationships. David Stilwell, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under President Trump, stated that China’s actions are inadvertently facilitating U.S. strategic objectives.

Although the Biden administration has been heavily focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the President has reiterated that China remains the foremost foreign policy challenge. He has framed much of his domestic and international agenda as efforts to deter China from usurping the United States as the preeminent global power.

During a recent fundraising event, Biden referred to China as a “ticking time bomb” due to its economic and demographic issues, indicating that this could lead to adverse actions on the global stage.

Vice President Harris has previously visited numerous Asian countries, including Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. These journeys have often been aimed at navigating the intricate geopolitics involving China. Speaking from a U.S. Navy destroyer near Tokyo last year, Harris criticized China’s maritime assertiveness and its coercive tactics against its neighbors.

Harris also became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Palawan, a Filipino island close to the contested South China Sea, pledging U.S. support for the Philippines in resisting external intimidation and coercion.

Contributions by Edna Tarigan from Jakarta, Indonesia.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Kamala Harris Southeast Asia Summit

What is the main purpose of Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the Southeast Asia Summit in Jakarta?

The primary objective of Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit is to deepen U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia, particularly through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Her presence aims to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region and to address concerns about the United States’ commitment to ASEAN, especially in light of President Biden’s absence from the summit.

Why is President Joe Biden not attending the summit?

President Joe Biden has decided not to attend the ASEAN summit, which has led to some discontent among regional leaders and analysts. Although the reason for his absence has not been explicitly stated, he will be visiting India and Vietnam around the same time, which has made his non-attendance more conspicuous.

How does Kamala Harris’ visit impact U.S.-China relations?

Vice President Harris’ visit is seen as an effort to counterbalance China’s influence in the Southeast Asian region. The U.S. aims to forge stronger partnerships with nations that may be concerned about China’s assertive actions, particularly in areas like the South China Sea.

What internal challenges is ASEAN facing?

ASEAN is currently grappling with various internal challenges, including the inability to resolve civil strife in Myanmar and unresolved territorial claims in the South China Sea. There are also internal disagreements within ASEAN regarding the global competition between the United States and China.

How many times has Kamala Harris visited Asia and Southeast Asia?

This will be Vice President Kamala Harris’ fourth visit to Asia and her third specifically to Southeast Asia. Her consistent engagement with the region underscores the importance the Biden administration places on U.S.-Asia relations.

What is the geopolitical significance of the South China Sea?

The South China Sea is a critical juncture for global trade and has been a focal point for territorial disputes. China’s recent release of a new official map emphasizing its territorial claims has heightened tensions in the region.

How is the U.S. maintaining its engagement with ASEAN despite Biden’s absence?

In addition to Vice President Harris’ attendance, the U.S. has taken other measures to maintain its engagement with ASEAN. For instance, President Biden hosted the first-ever Washington summit with ASEAN leaders last year, demonstrating ongoing commitment to the region.

What are the areas of focus for Kamala Harris during her visit?

While the detailed schedule for Vice President Harris has not been released, she is expected to participate in conference events and hold bilateral discussions with select foreign leaders. She is likely to focus on issues concerning U.S.-ASEAN relations, China’s regional influence, and various geopolitical challenges in Southeast Asia.

More about Kamala Harris Southeast Asia Summit

  • U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ Previous Visits to Asia
  • Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
  • Biden Administration’s Foreign Policy Goals
  • China’s Influence in Southeast Asia
  • Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea
  • Myanmar’s Ongoing Civil Strife
  • Washington Summit with ASEAN Leaders
  • The Geopolitical Importance of the South China Sea

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TechyTom September 4, 2023 - 7:50 am

this is her 3rd trip to Southeast Asia, right? Seems theyre really tryin to push back against China. But is it enough?

Global_Watcher September 4, 2023 - 1:33 pm

Kind of odd Biden isn’t going when he’s gonna be nearby in India and Vietnam. Makes the absence glaring, like the article says.

SaraInFinance September 4, 2023 - 5:21 pm

So we’re sending the VP to deal with ASEAN? Important, but also says a lot about where it falls in the admin’s priorities.

Paul_The_Analyst September 4, 2023 - 8:18 pm

ASEAN has a big population and a strong economy, yet still struggles with civil issues and territorial disputes. A complicated but crucial player for sure.

Janet_Politics September 4, 2023 - 11:15 pm

The struggle within ASEAN is real, they can’t even agree among themselves. How can they stand up against China or anyone else?

EcoElla September 5, 2023 - 5:31 am

South China Sea’s super important, not just for Asia but global trade. High time we take that seriously.


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