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Vice President Harris will face doubts and dysfunction at the Southeast Asian nations summit

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Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks at the top of a meeting on Climate with Cabinet members and leaders at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as part of the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit at the Loy Henderson International Conference Room at the U.S. Department of State on U.S. Department of State on Friday, May 13, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Kent Nishimura | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Vice President Kamala Harris will deepen her outreach to Southeast Asia this week at an international summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, where she’ll try to erase doubts about U.S. commitment to the region stirred by President Joe Biden’s absence.

It’s Harris’ third trip to Southeast Asia and fourth to Asia overall, and she’s touched down in more countries there than any other continent. The repeat visits, in addition to meetings that she’s hosted in Washington, have positioned Harris as a key interlocutor for the Democratic administration as it tries to bolster a network of partnerships to counterbalance Chinese influence.

This latest journey is another opportunity for Harris to burnish her foreign policy credentials as she prepares for a bruising campaign year. She’s already come under attack from Republican presidential candidates who say she’s unprepared to step up if Biden, the oldest U.S. president in history, can’t finish a second term.

John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said Harris has “made our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific a key part of her agenda as vice president,” and he described her itinerary as “perfectly in keeping with the issues that she’s been focused on.”

But Biden’s decision to skip the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN, has caused some frustration, particularly because he’s already going to be in India and Vietnam around the same time. The president’s proximity makes his nonattendance “all the more more glaring than would otherwise be the case,” said Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s former foreign affairs minister.

However, Natalegawa conceded that ASEAN is struggling to convince world leaders that it deserves to play a central role in the region. That’s even though the alliance represents more than 650 million people across 10 nations that collectively have the world’s fifth largest economy.

The organization has not resolved civil strife in Myanmar, which saw a military coup two years ago and has been disinvited from meetings. A peace plan reached with the country’s top general did not lead to any progress.

Negotiations over territorial claims in the South China Sea remain bogged down as well, and ASEAN faces internal disagreements over global competition between the United States and China. Some members, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, have sought closer ties with Washington, while Cambodia remains firmly in Beijing’s orbit.

“We can complain all we want about other countries not respecting us or not coming to our summits,” Natalegawa said. “But ultimately, it is actually a point of reflection.”

Unless ASEAN becomes more effective, Natalegawa said, “we may end up with less and less leaders turning up.”

Kirby, the national security spokesman, rejected the idea that Biden was snubbing the organization or the region.

“It’s just impossible to look at the record that this administration has put forward and say that we are somehow walking away,” Kirby said, noting that Biden already hosted the first Washington summit with ASEAN leaders last year.

Phil Gordon, a national security adviser to Harris, said “every country wants the president of the United States to show up” when it holds an event, but “there’s a great amount of enthusiasm” for the vice president’s stop in Jakarta as well.

He also said the summit was a valuable opportunity to engage with countries in the region.

“There are differences among them, but there’s also a lot of common ground,” Gordon said. “And there’s common ground with us.”

Ja-Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said Harris’ presence helps the U.S. cover its bases at an event that may not prove productive on key issues.

“You want to show that you’re paying attention, you send the vice president,” he said.

Harris departed Monday morning and is scheduled to spend two days enmeshed in meetings in Jakarta. Her office has not yet detailed her schedule, but she’s expected to attend summit events and hold individual talks with some foreign leaders.

Soon after Harris returns from Indonesia, Biden is headed to India for the annual Group of 20 summit, which pulls together many of the world’s richest countries and is a staple of any president’s calendar. Then he plans to stop in Vietnam, where he’s focused on strengthening ties with a country that is an emerging economic power.

“I don’t fault the administration for the choice that they made. It’s just unfortunate that they had to make that choice,” said Gregory B. Poling, who directs the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Leaders are gathering in Jakarta amid heightened tension over the South China Sea after Beijing released a new official map that emphasizes its territorial claims there.

The map has angered other nations that consider the waters to be part of their own territory or international byways. The South China Sea is a critical crossroads for global trade.

U.S. officials and analysts believe Beijing’s aggressive approach to the region has created an opening for Washington to forge stronger partnerships.

“In many ways, the PRC is doing its work for us,” said David Stilwell, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China. Stilwell served as the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs under President Donald Trump.

Although much of Biden’s recent attention has been on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he’s left no doubt that he considers China to be the top foreign policy challenge for the U.S. He’s described much of his agenda, both domestic and overseas, as an effort to deter Beijing from supplanting Washington as the most powerful worldwide force.

Sometimes his warnings take a darker turn. During a recent fundraiser for his reelection campaign in Park City, Utah, Biden described China as a “ticking time bomb” because of its economic and demographic challenges.

“That’s not good because when bad folks have problems, they do bad things,” he said.

Harris has previously visited Singapore and Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, and the Philippines and Thailand.

Many of her travels have been geared toward the global rivalry with China.

Speaking from the deck of a U.S. Navy destroyer docked near Tokyo last year, Harris said China has “challenged freedom of the seas” and “flexed its military and economic might to coerce and intimidate its neighbors.”

Harris also became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Palawan, a Filipino island adjacent to the South China Sea that has been a front line for the territorial disputes. She said that Washington would support the Philippines “in the face of intimidation and coercion.”

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