It took greater than a day of flying, together with two refueling stops, for Vice President Kamala Harris to succeed in this 12 months’s summit of Southeast Asian nations. And as soon as she arrived, she had lower than eight minutes of public talking time throughout two conferences.
But in Jakarta’s cavernous conference heart, adorned with billowing flowers and tropical vegetation for the event, Harris noticed a chance to form the way forward for United States overseas coverage.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the vice chairman mentioned that Washington should “pay attention to 10, 20, 30 years down the line, and what we are developing now that will be to the benefit of our country then.”
For her, that means working in Southeast Asia. Two-thirds of its population is under 35 years old. It’s the fourth-largest market for U.S. exports. One-third of global shipping travels through the South China Sea.
“Think about it,” Harris said.
This was her third trip to Southeast Asia since taking office — Harris heads back to Washington on Thursday — and she’s visited more countries here than any other region. It’s a sprawling constellation of nations, many of them eager for the personal touch of an American leader, and Harris has spent the past few years making the rounds.
Although addressing migration from Central America was the original task in Harris’ foreign policy portfolio, her more recent travels have put her at the center of White House efforts to bolster ties in Asia as a counterbalance to China. It’s an international parallel to her more prominent role in domestic politics, where she’s been taking the lead on core Democratic issues such as abortion rights in the upcoming election.
At home and abroad, progress can be slow or hard to measure. Harris’ approval ratings remain underwater, and her announcements in Southeast Asia tend to be counted in the millions of dollars rather than the billions. But she described her work in the region as something that will pay dividends over time as she gets to know its leaders.
“The strongest relationships will be based on consistency, on communication, on trust, and the ability to work together and to grow the sense of connection,” she said.
Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said “many of our best successes in the region were made possible thanks to her diplomacy,” crediting Harris with helping to “move the ball forward on some of our top priorities.”
“In our administration, she has been a strong advocate for stepping up our engagement in Southeast Asia — and she’s put in the air miles to prove that — in recognition that our work there is critical to our own security and economic growth,” Sullivan mentioned.
Some analysts imagine China maintains an edge within the area, and the Australia-based Lowy Institute issued a report earlier this 12 months concluding that Beijing was nonetheless gaining floor lately.
However, Harris delivered a sequence of messages on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that have been supposed to display American dedication regardless of Biden’s absence from the summit.
“The American individuals have a profound stake in the way forward for the Indo-Pacific,” she said during one meeting. “We share a historic bond and customary values with most of the individuals and nations right here.”
Harris additionally paid tribute to ASEAN as a corporation, regardless of rising doubts about its effectiveness for regional diplomacy.
“The fact that so many leaders are convening in this one place at the same time to address some of the biggest challenges facing our world is a sign of strength of both the commitment that each nation has to the coalition and the potential for collaboration,” she instructed the AP.
Others are much less hopeful.
Dinna Prapto Raharja, a Jakarta-based analyst and professor on worldwide relations, mentioned ASEAN is being divided by competitors between the U.S. and China, with some nations searching for to bolster their economies by way of nearer relations with one or the opposite.
“I don’t see solidarity at this moment, given the rivalry,” she mentioned. “Everybody works their own way.”
Harris’ journey to Southeast Asia started in her first 12 months in workplace, when she visited Singapore and Vietnam, however the journey virtually did not occur.
Phil Gordon, a nationwide safety adviser to Harris, mentioned there was discuss of canceling as a result of the administration was within the midst of a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“She personally insisted that we can do more than one thing at a time,” Gordon mentioned. “She didn’t want to pull the plug on our commitment to Southeast Asia.”
During the journey, she repeatedly criticized China for attempting to regulate entry to the South China Sea, at one level describing the conduct as “bullying.”
“She didn’t knock it out of the park. It’s clear she was new to the issues. But she’s put in the work,” said Gregory B. Poling, who directs the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He described Harris as “an effective avatar for the administration,” an vital place when the president can solely be in so many locations directly.
David Rothkopf, a overseas coverage author who labored on commerce points beneath former President Bill Clinton and has met with Harris, mentioned there’s “always a period of adjustment” for an incoming administration.
“She was new to the team,” he mentioned. “And now she’s seen as part of the team.”
It’s a job that she’s performed incessantly. In addition to skipping this 12 months’s ASEAN summit, Biden did not attend the 2022 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation convention in Thailand as a result of it conflicted together with his granddaughter’s wedding ceremony.
Harris went in his place, and he or she additionally stopped within the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally the place she’s fostered an in depth relationship with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
During the go to, Harris turned the highest-ranking U.S. official to go to Palawan, an island adjoining to the South China Sea. She toured a Philippine coast guard boat and spoke with members of a neighborhood fishing group.
Republicans tried to show it into an unflattering viral second, clipping a video to painting her as awkwardly as attainable as she greeted individuals with buckets of fish on their head.
But to her workplace, it’s an instance of how Harris is keen to indicate up locations the place others don’t. She incessantly participates in occasions outdoors the airtight bubble of worldwide summits or authorities occasions.
In Vietnam, she met with activists engaged on homosexual rights and local weather change. In Thailand, she sat down with environmental advocates and clear vitality entrepreneurs.
“We have to see the future and think about where it’s going,” Harris instructed the AP, “and then measure ourselves against that in terms of what we do today.”
Associated Press author Edna Tarigan contributed to this report.