Media commentators focus on what US V-P Kamala Harris said about China

US Vice-President Kamala Harris speaking at a joint-press conference at the Istana on Aug 23, 2021. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - US Vice-President Kamala Harris' maiden trip to Singapore and Vietnam this week has received wide media coverage, particularly over her remarks against China.

Many editorials and commentaries noted that the administration of President Joe Biden is on a diplomatic offensive to stress US commitment to South-east Asia amid efforts to counter Beijing's influence in this region.

In an editorial, The Australian noted on Thursday (Aug 26) that nervousness among the region's countries about getting caught in the crossfire between Washington and Beijing was understandable. But they should heed the argument Ms Harris made on Tuesday and Wednesday about the threat posed by China, it said.

Ms Harris had accused Beijing of bullying in the South China Sea and pledged that Washington would "raise the pressure" on China.

"To restore confidence in the US as a reliable ally, however, the Biden administration needs to do much more to make it clear that its new pivot to the region is not going to go the same way as (former US president Barrack) Obama's unfulfilled (Asia) strategy," said The Australian.

The US decision to choose only Singapore and Vietnam on Ms Harris' first trip to South-east Asia has not gone unnoticed.

Foreign Policy magazine wrote that the Biden administration was playing it safe by choosing these two countries for Ms Harris, who it said had little foreign-policy experience.

"The administration is aiming low because of underlying weaknesses in its approach to Asia," wrote Ms Susannah Patton and Ms Ashley Townshend from the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre.

"For all the administration's rhetoric about strategic competition with China, it has yet to present a serious Indo-Pacific policy - or its most important element, an effective economic strategy for the region."

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had also visited both countries and the Philippines last month.

"Had Harris visited countries other than the two US-friendly stops prepared by Austin, Washington would have had to put much more on the table to secure a warm welcome," Ms Patton and Ms Townshend wrote.

Writing on Thailand-based news site The Irrawaddy on Monday, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said that by "showing favour" towards the two countries, Washington was using a "salami-slicing strategy with Asean".

"As a superpower, the US can choose to associate with any country in the world. But the US ignores Thailand at its own peril," he warned.

As expected, Ms Harris' remarks on China drew Beijing's ire, with the Chinese foreign ministry using its familiar refrain of accusing the US of meddling in regional affairs and disrupting peace, while the state media had a field day castigating Washington.

The state-run China Daily ran daily editorials, with one on Monday accusing the US of driving "a wedge between China and some Asean members using the South China Sea issue".

The next day, it said that "while pointing a finger at China and accusing it of 'coercion' and 'intimidation', Ms Harris had wilfully ignored her own hypocrisy in attempting to coerce and intimidate regional countries to join Washington in its scheme to contain China".

On Wednesday, it warned that the US was "daydreaming" if it hoped it could "alienate" China from its neighbours in this region.

Similarly, nationalist tabloid Global Times in its commentaries accused Ms Harris of seeking to "further strengthen the US' regional presence… (to turn) South-east Asia into a frontier against China".

It also claimed the US "wooing" Singapore after the "Afghan fiasco" would be "ineffective", and that the US attempt to "contain" China was "wishful thinking".

On Weibo, netizens alluded to Ms Harris' trip as seeking support against China's influence, with one netizen asking: "Why did she head to China's backyard?"

Said another Weibo comment: "A leopard doesn't change its spots, it has come to stir up trouble in South-east Asia."

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