Harris holds steady on Southeast Asia trip as crises loom
Honolulu — In Singapore, in between a foreign policy speech and a roundtable talk about supply chain issues, Vice President Kamala Harris stopped to smell the flowers.
Specifically, she checked out an orchid that the country named after her — a light fuschia hybrid named Papilionanda Kamala Harris — a diplomatic honor also bestowed on former President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden during past visits to the country.
“Oh, this is extraordinary,” she marveled as she took a brief tour of the lush Flower Field room of Singapore’s iconic Gardens By the Bay on Tuesday.
It was a brief — and rare — moment of normalcy for Harris during a diplomatic trip chock full of extraordinary circumstances.
Harris’ weeklong trip to Singapore and Vietnam was shadowed from start to finish by the crisis in Afghanistan. Questions about the messy U.S. withdrawal dominated her first few days in Singapore and the attack that killed 13 Americans outside the Kabul airport caused her to nix a planned visit to California on her way home.
In the middle, Harris delayed by a few hours her travel to Vietnam because of concern about potential health attacks against U.S. diplomats there.
And the trip itself played out against the backdrop of a global pandemic that kept Harris hemmed in by the carefully choreographed stagecraft of her diplomatic meetings with leaders and a smattering of roundtables and speeches.
But those very crises may in fact have contributed to what analysts say was the overall success of the trip.
“Buffeted by these concerns about things that were happening both in Hanoi and elsewhere, they held pretty steady,” said Ted Osius, who served as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam under Obama.
“They delivered key messages to our partners and showed both continuity and a future for the relationships, by the fact that they had steady nerves and they continued with the trip, even despite these challenges.”
Amid the withdrawal from Afghanistan, one of Harris’ top tasks for the trip was to reassure U.S. allies that America can be trusted to stand by its commitments. Osius said the Vietnamese now “know that we trust each other enough to be able to carry on, even in turbulent, unusual times.”
Facing numerous questions about Afghanistan, Harris overall exhibited a more disciplined message than she did during her first foreign trip, to Guatemala and Mexico. There, she drew criticism from Democrats for warning migrants not to come to the U.S., and from Republicans for dismissing questions about her decision not to visit the U.S. southern border.
In Singapore, and again in Vietnam, Harris repeated administration talking points about the evacuation effort being the White House’s “highest priority” and avoided getting bogged down in recriminations over what went wrong.
“There wasn’t really anything to clean up, which obviously differentiates from that Guatemala and Mexico trip,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne.
Even so, Republicans took the opportunity to go after Harris — both a nod toward her possible political future, as the presumptive sucessor to Biden if he chooses not to run in 2024, and an attempt to take advantage of her generally divisive profile among U.S. voters.
Chris Martin, deputy executive director of GOP opposition research group America Rising, said on Twitter that “every assignment Kamala Harris has touched as VP has failed miserably,” including her latest efforts to reassure U.S. allies.
But Payne said Harris had showed a more polished and focused approach on her latest trip.
“My sense is that the vice president’s team has attempted to course correct a bit and simplify the message and simplify the task,” he said.
On confronting China — the trickiest diplomatic issue for Harris during the trip — the vice president struck a balance in delivering a rebuke of what she called China’s “bullying” in the South China Sea while also offering a more constructive vision for the U.S. relationship with Singapore and Vietnam.
While her visit offered up a number of new opportunities for cooperation between the U.S. and its Southeast Asian allies, it lacked one major touchstone of the typical diplomatic trip: engagement with local people.
When Biden visited Singapore as vice president, he stopped by a bustling hawker stall for a limeade. When Obama visited Vietnam, he was met with throngs of cheering Vietnamese after sharing a meal and a beer with Anthony Bourdain in a tiny noodle shop, and he beatboxed with Vietnamese youth.
With the coronavirus pandemic surging again across much of Southeast Asia, Harris and her entourage were largely confined to their hotel rooms. Upon arriving in both Singapore and Vietnam, the entire delegation received COVID-19 tests and had to quarantine in their hotel rooms until the results came through.
In Vietnam, a country with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the region and record high infections in recent weeks, the streets of Hanoi were eerily empty as Harris’ motorcade sped to her events. Instead of a spontaneous moment on the streets of Vietnam, Harris held a small roundtable with LGBTQ and climate change activists.
“Just like we had to reinvent domestically what a political campaign looks like — official travel is now subject to that same upheaval,” said Eric Schultz, who served as principal deputy press secretary for Obama.
“Building cultural relationships is person to person. When you take that out of the equation, it just becomes harder.”
Gregory Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while the pandemic complicated Harris’ trip, it also created opportunities to show the U.S. commitment to the region. Indeed, Harris deployed America’s vaccine diplomacy in Vietnam, where she announced the delivery of an additional 1 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine and 77 freezers to help store doses.
“It limits the number of engagements, it limits your engagement with civil society and others, it makes it harder to travel outside the capital — but it also helps reinforce the message that they are really investing in relationships there,” he said.