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Vice President Harris Is In Vietnam, The Last Stop On Her Southeast Asia Trip


Vice President Kamala Harris is in Hanoi, Vietnam, the last stop on her weeklong trip to Southeast Asia, one aimed at showing a commitment to a region largely ignored by the Trump administration. Part of this effort aims at countering China's growing influence in the region. Reporter Michael Sullivan joins us now. Good morning, Michael.


FADEL: So, Michael, how's the trip been so far? I imagine what's happening in Afghanistan may be overshadowing the Harris visit.

SULLIVAN: Well, it's definitely been an issue, but she's addressed it head-on repeatedly, saying there'll be plenty of time to figure out what went wrong later but that the only issue the U.S. is focusing on now is getting U.S. citizens, Afghans who worked for the U.S. and others at risk out. Other than that, she stayed very much on message, assuring Washington's partners in Southeast Asia that the region is critically important, in her words, to U.S. security and prosperity. And on the latter point, she emphasized the growing economic interdependence between the two. And then, of course, she also talked about security and the other elephant in the room, China.

FADEL: Now, she called out China in her policy speech yesterday. And this was billed as the administration's vision for the region, right?

SULLIVAN: That's right. And she said the U.S. is committed to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, through which a lot of the world's trade passes. And she accused China of coercion and intimidation in pursuing its claims there.


KAMALA HARRIS: 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.

SULLIVAN: China, of course, was quick to respond, a foreign ministry spokesman saying the U.S. is the bully and that what's happening in Afghanistan proves the U.S. has lost credibility.

FADEL: Now, one of those partners Harris spoke of is Vietnam, where Harris is today.

SULLIVAN: That's right. But you know what Vietnam is more worried about right now than China? It's COVID. It's getting hammered by a delta-driven wave, and its struggling. The commercial capital, Ho Chi Minh City, is under near total lockdown. The U.S. has delivered millions of vaccines in the past few weeks. And Harris said today another million will start arriving within 24 hours, and that's definitely welcome. Her trip to Hanoi was delayed for three hours, by the way, because of reports of an anomalous health incident at the U.S. Embassy. That's what the State Department calls what's also known as Havana syndrome. There have been no further details.

Regarding China, yeah, Vietnam is still worried about it and its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which the Vietnamese call the East Sea. But says Carl Thayer, a longtime Vietnam watcher at the Australian Defence Force Academy, from Vietnam's perspective, now's not the time to poke the dragon.

CARL THAYER: If you go back 21, 22 months, there haven't been any major incidents with China. This is as good as it gets in relations with China, and therefore, we shouldn't do anything to provoke.

SULLIVAN: But that doesn't mean the U.S. and Vietnam won't continue to deepen their security relationship in the future.

FADEL: So how do you think this trip will be viewed in the region overall?

SULLIVAN: Let's give Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, the last word on that from the very first day of the vice president's visit.


PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG: Post-Afghanistan in the longer term, what matters is how the U.S. repositions itself in the Asia Pacific, engages the broader region and continues the fight against terrorism because that will determine the perceptions of the countries, of the U.S. global priorities and of its strategic intentions.

SULLIVAN: In other words, too early to tell.

FADEL: Michael Sullivan in Thailand, thank you for joining us.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.