Kamala Harris Speaks Out Against China for the First Time As Vice President

Kamala Harris chided China for what she described as coercion and intimidation in the South China Sea, while reaffirming U.S. security commitments to Asia during perhaps the most noteworthy foreign policy speech of her vice presidency so far.

In prepared remarks on Tuesday, Harris told a forum at Singapore's Gardens by the Bay that the U.S. was ready to support allies and partners against threats posed to the existing rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, a region that, more than ever, is the focus of U.S. attention and resources.

Harris said Beijing "continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea. These unlawful claims have been rejected by the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision."

"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," she told the event hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

They were Harris' strongest remarks about China yet, and her first such rebuke as vice president. They came at a time when Chinese state-run news outlets have sought to convince the country's neighbors that the U.S. would likely renegade on its security commitments to the region following its poorly executed withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The vice president's visit was overshadowed by ongoing events in the Middle East. She addressed questions about the evacuations in Kabul and elsewhere but said her visit to Singapore was about reaffirming long-standing U.S. interests and commitments to Asia, where there are a number of American treaty allies.

The U.S. would invest "time and energy" to fortify its relationships in the region, said Harris, repeating much of the Biden administration's consistent use of language when engaging with Southeast Asia, which observers describe as being in the middle of intensifying U.S.-China competition.

Now President Joe Biden's most senior cabinet member to visit to region, Harris stressed openness and inclusiveness as well as shared interests and mutual benefits. She also mentioned familiar policy language including the U.S. pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific, ASEAN centrality, the Quad and freedom of navigation.

Her foreign policy speech included an important reference to the "for, not against" nature of U.S. policy in Asia, an aspect some of its closest partners, including Singapore, have successfully highlighted and maximized. Harris said U.S. common interests in the region "are not zero-sum."

"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. Instead, our engagement is about advancing an optimistic vision that we have for our participation and partnership in this region," she said.

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Harris, who is scheduled to meet top officials in Vietnam on Wednesday, called in on senior Singaporean officials on Monday, including President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

During a joint press conference, Lee praised security cooperation between Singapore and the U.S., part of which allows visiting American forces to make use of the city's naval and air facilities. Harris later met U.S. service personnel on USS Tulsa, which is docked at Changi Naval Base.

The Singaporean prime minister offered supportive and optimistic remarks about U.S. foreign policy going forward, in light of the withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years. He appeared to leave further room for the Biden administration to prove its long-term commitments to the Asia.

"[W]e are watching what is happening in Afghanistan on the TV screens today. But what will influence perceptions of U.S. resolve and commitment to the region will be what the U.S. does going forward—how it 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," he said.

Lee added: "Countries make calculations and take positions, and they have to make recalculations and adjust their positions from time to time. Sometimes it can be done smoothly; sometimes there are hiccups; sometimes things go awry and take time to put right.

"But countries remain with long-term interests, with long-term partners, and it is a mark of a country which can succeed that it takes these interests and partners seriously and in a dispassionate way, and maintains them over the long term. And the U.S. has been in the region since the war, which is more than 70 years ago.

"There have been ups and downs; there have been difficult moments; there have also been, over decades, dramatic transformations in Asia, wrought by the benign and constructive influence of the United States, as a regional guarantor of security and support of prosperity. Singapore hopes and works on the basis that the U.S. will continue to play that role, and continues to engage the region for many more years to come."