The US vice president said Washington’s partnerships in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific “are a top priority.”
US Vice President Kamala Harris accused China of using “coercion” and “intimidation” to support illegal claims in the South China Sea as it seeks to rally Asian countries against Beijing and strengthen the credibility of the United States following a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
His comments on Tuesday came during a seven-day trip to Singapore and Vietnam that aims to resist China’s growing security and economic influence around the world.
The United States has called the rivalry with China the “biggest geopolitical test” of the century and is diverting attention and resources from the Indo-Pacific region as it shifts away from old security concerns, including with the withdrawal of China. his forces from Afghanistan.
“We know that Beijing continues to coerce, intimidate and claim the vast majority of the South China Sea,” Harris said in his speech in Singapore.
“Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations,” she said.
“The United States stands with our allies and partners in the face of these threats. “
China claims almost all of the resource-rich sea, through which billions of dollars in maritime trade pass each year, with competing claims from four Southeast Asian states as well as Taiwan.
Beijing has been accused of deploying a range of military hardware there, including anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, and has ignored a 2016 international tribunal ruling in The Hague that declared its historic claim on most of them groundless. waters.
Tensions have intensified in recent months between Beijing and rival claimants.
Manila was angry after hundreds of Chinese boats were spotted inside the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone, as Malaysia scrambled fighter jets to intercept Chinese military planes that appeared off its coast .
The US Navy, for its part, regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” operations in disputed waters, which China opposes, saying they do not help promote peace or stability.
In recent months, the administration of US President Joe Biden has stepped up activities in the region, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Austin both visiting the region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a number of virtual meetings with Southeast Asian officials earlier this month.
Harris said the region was “of critical importance to the security and prosperity of our country,” adding that “our partnerships in Singapore, Southeast Asia and throughout the Indo-Pacific are a top priority. for the United States ”.
She also sought to allay fears that growing tensions between the United States and China would force countries with close ties to the world’s two major economies to choose sides.
“Our engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country in particular, and it is not designed to choose between countries,” she said.
Part of Harris’ task during the trip will be to convince leaders in the region that the US commitment to Southeast Asia is strong and does not parallel Afghanistan.
The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, however, complicated this message of support for the region, raising questions about the US commitment to its allies. While Biden said last week that an indefinite engagement would have benefited “real strategic competitors” of China and Russia, China has used images of the evacuation’s violence to criticize the United States for their commitment there.
In Tuesday’s speech, Harris defended Biden’s decision to go ahead with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as “courageous and fair” and reiterated that US officials were “laser-focused” on the evacuation of Kabul airport.
She also said the United States has offered to host a meeting of the Asia-Pacific APEC trade group in 2023, which includes the United States, China and Japan.
She will speak later Tuesday with business leaders in Singapore about supply chain issues, including the global microchip shortage, before traveling to the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.