As all eyes remained fixed on the ongoing disaster in Afghanistan, Vice President Kamala Harris embarked on a South Asia tour of Singapore and Vietnam—no doubt calculating that it was a wonderful time for her to be as far away from the White House as possible. However, the Afghanistan debacle nonetheless weighed heavy over the entire affair, and Harris found herself caught in more than a few awkward moments – as has seemingly become the norm for one of the most unpopular vice presidents in recent memory.
While the administration’s self-inflicted disasters at home and abroad certainly cast a pall over Harris’s trip, the Vice President did herself no favors with several messaging missteps of her own, as well as some bizarre behavior.
Harris came under fire just as she departed for the trip for appearing to cackle when asked about the Afghanistan crisis. Over the first several months of the administration, Harris has repeatedly laughed at inappropriate moments, most notably when asked questions that she appears unprepared for.
During a roundtable in Singapore, Harris also sparked concern over her statement that “if you want to have Christmas toys for your children it might be the time to start buying them because the delay may be many, many months.” Some commentators suggested that the Vice President’s remarks indicated that more economic lockdowns may be on the horizon, which could lead to even more panic and uncertainty from Americans already struggling to recover from the pandemic.
It also became clear at Harris’ first public appearance on the trip that she would not escape discussion of the Biden administration’s botched pullout from Afghanistan. Asked about America’s “credibility” at a joint press conference, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a former Brigadier General, expressed concern that Biden’s precipitous retreat may make the world a more dangerous place, saying that he hopes “Afghanistan does not become an epicenter for terrorism again.”
Loong also said that “perceptions of US resolve and commitment to the region” will depend on “how it [the United States] repositions itself in the region, how it engages its broad range of friends and partners and allies in the region, and how it continues the fight against terrorism.” No doubt the “repositioning” the Prime Minister referred to was regarding America’s posture toward China, especially in light of its increasing aggression under Xi Jinping.
As the point of Harris’s trip was to reassure Indo-Pacific nations that the United States remains a strong ally against threats from China, North Korea, and Russia, things were not off to an auspicious start.
During her stop in Vietnam, the Vice President said that “we need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing.” But both the optics and the substance of the trip were completely incompatible with that narrative, as the Vice President had no major announcements to back it up, and the world was transfixed on a retreating America halfway around the globe.
Moreover, the Vice President’s presence in Vietnam presented perhaps the worst possible contrast to the image of strength and competence the Biden administration hoped to convey given the events occurring simultaneously in Afghanistan. After President Biden reassured the world in July that it would not witness anything akin to the US’s chaotic withdrawal from Vietnam with the famous helicopter evacuation of embassy personnel in 1975, the world was watching that exact scene occur in Afghanistan, while the Vice President was in, of all places, Vietnam.
Kamala’s diplomacy tour also got poor reviews from many of our allies in the region. Susannah Patton, a research fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre in Australia, commenting on the Vice President’s trip, said it showed the administration was “lacking a serious vision for the region,” and “is aiming low.”
“For all the administration’s rhetoric about strategic competition with China, it has yet to present a serious Indo-Pacific policy,” Patton warned. And notwithstanding Biden’s rhetoric about an organized and dignified exit from Afghanistan, it failed to deliver on both, ceding ground and negotiating leverage to an enemy far less powerful than the United States. In light of the disaster, countries like Australia, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam have reason to fear that the Biden administration will not keep its word to defend America’s allies against a much more powerful enemy in China.
To cap it all off, although clearly no fault of Harris’s, the Vice President’s flight was delayed several hours in Hanoi for an undisclosed health incident, rumored to be the mysterious “Havana syndrome” reported by US[JC1] government personnel abroad, drawing distracting headlines and putting her off schedule for the remainder of the trip.
At precisely the moment when the world needed reassurance that the United States is still a stalwart friend and defender of freedom that can be relied upon to stand up to China, Harris not only failed to credibly convey that theme, but seemed to project the exact opposite message.
Countering threats from China, North Korea, and Russia in the Pacific region will require responding with the same level of commitment and resolve that those countries are prepared to leverage in any potential conflict. Thus far, Biden and Harris have shown no indication that they are prepared to defend American interests, or even to put up a strong front to deter further aggression from America’s enemies.