A guiding principle in foreign policy is to put the nation’s best and brightest out front to represent US interests. However, the Biden administration has consistently been guilty of advancing a prominent administration personage many might consider a credibility problem. Once again, President Joe Biden has dispatched Vice President Kamala Harris to carry his diplomatic water – this time to the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and the East Asia Summit Sept. 4-7.
Kamala Harris Goes to ASEAN Summit
With few demonstrable achievements, waning authority, and favorability numbers at a record low, Kamala Harris is meeting with a group of countries that harbor skepticism about American values and the reliability and intentions of the Biden administration. ASEAN was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Added since then have been Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, and Cambodia. The East Asia Summit brings together a more geopolitically eclectic group, including the United States, China, Russia, Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. For this, China sent President Xi Jinping’s regrets and substituted Premier Li Qiang.
Most of these nations are cordial to the United States because it has the superpower might to face what they see as a daily threat from China to their sovereignty, security, and economic survival. Others, however, see the People’s Republic of China as the budding nuclear power with which to align themselves – not because of geopolitical affection but because the Biden administration has been exposed as unreliable. Two years on, the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle is still fresh in the minds of Asian countries.
Harris’ performances in international settings have not instilled confidence. Whether ferreting out “root causes” and planting trees in South America as the “border czar” or explaining to Europeans, “We are talking about the real possibility of war in Europe,” as Harris told reporters at the Munich Security Conference just before Russia invaded Ukraine, she has not made the type of bold impression needed for effective foreign policy credibility. The Veep broke the news to personnel at Vandenberg Space Force Base that the Biden administration is abandoning the US anti-satellite program, while the nation’s enemies Russia and China are ramping up theirs. According to the White House verbatim transcript, her remarks included: “I think everyone here recognizes how extraordinary space is. Space — it affects us all, and it connects us all.” And Madam Vice President, there is so much of it. Golly gee.
Not Solving Problems
The fact that the vice president is attending the ASEAN and East Asian summits, and not the president, has raised some eyebrows. Biden’s trip to the G20 meeting in India and visit to Vietnam Sept. 7-10 puts the US chief executive in the neighborhood. Consequently, the commander-in-chief’s decision to skip the summits when troubling issues need to be addressed has made some skeptical of how committed the United States is to solving the problems in the ASEAN region. The absence of Biden “has caused some frustration, particularly because he’s already going to be in India and Vietnam around the same time. The president’s proximity makes his nonattendance ‘all the more glaring than would otherwise be the case,’ said Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s former foreign affairs minister,” Chris Megerian reported for Associated Press.
More importantly, having Biden at the East Asia Summit would put China’s President Xi Jinping at a disadvantage since he has also elected not to attend. Important subjects are on the agenda, including territorial claims and “internal disagreements over global competition between the United States and China,” as Megerian explained. By not being present, Biden cedes much of the argument over South China Sea sovereignty to Beijing. Meanwhile, the White House press room has said Harris will discuss the “climate crisis,” although it is hard to imagine this topic is at the top of the list of either summits’ major concerns.
Kamala Harris has not done the nation any favors when she has taken on a diplomatic role, despite what her PR staff gushes out to the media. America’s allies, partners, and those who might side with the United States if persuaded the Biden administration was credible fully understand that the US does not engage in thorny foreign policy issues. Sending Vice President Harris reinforces that perception.
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