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Biden's Asia policy

Harris rebukes China but pushes 'optimistic' US vision in Singapore

VP stresses Indo-Pacific engagement 'not against any one country'

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delivers a speech in Singapore on Aug. 24.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday sharply criticized China's actions in the South China Sea but insisted American engagement in the Indo-Pacific is "not against any one country," as she laid out Washington's regional policy in Singapore.

In a 15-minute speech, Harris described the Joe Biden administration's approach to security, economic relations and health with broad strokes and an upbeat tone, emphasizing plans to strengthen partnerships and reinforce a "shared vision."

"I must be clear, our engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country. Nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries," she stressed. "Instead, our engagement is about advancing an optimistic vision that we have for our participation and partnership in this region."

Harris was speaking on the first leg of her debut visit to Asia as vice president. She was scheduled to meet industry leaders in the city-state for talks on strengthening supply chains, before heading to Vietnam later in the day.

While the U.S. presence in Asia is often viewed through the lens of security, she said economic ties are a critical aspect, noting that Southeast Asian countries collectively represent America's fourth largest export market and that trade with the region supports 600,000 American jobs. Cooperation on climate change is also essential, she said.

Even as she accentuated the positive, however, she took China to task over its "unlawful claims" in the South China Sea, saying Beijing "continues to coerce, to intimidate, and to make claims" to the vast majority of the waterway. "Beijing's actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations. The United States stands with our allies and partners in the face of these threats."

Looming in the background was U.S. forces' ongoing and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the Taliban has swooped in to take control of the country. For some, the outcome has raised questions about U.S. commitments elsewhere.

Harris addressed this by saying that while the U.S. is "laser-focused" on evacuation operations, "at the same time, it is also imperative that as we address developments in one region, we continue to advance our interests in other regions."

Touching on Myanmar -- one of Southeast Asia's most pressing problems -- she said the U.S. remains "deeply alarmed by the military coup" and condemned the violence. "We are committed to supporting the people there as they work to return their nation to the path of democracy," she said.

But as Harris seeks to shore up U.S. influence and relationships in Southeast Asia, China is pushing back.

"China's ties with the region are at an all-time high as U.S. credibility took a nose-dive," state media CGTN said in an article on Harris' trip, published on Monday. "Southeast Asia is now China's biggest trading partner, ahead of the EU, U.S., Japan and South Korea. When China prospers, the entire region prospers.

"Harris's visit to the region cannot change these historical and current realities."

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