Kamala's Magical Mystery Tour

Reassuring jittery post-Kabul allies

By: David Brown

US Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to visit Singapore and Hanoi this week. Her trip was planned well before the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, and billed, says Associated Press, as "aiming to bolster US engagement in the region in an effort to counter China's growing global influence."

Harris could well be waved off her Hanoi stop. Her Vietnamese hosts are preoccupied by a deepening Delta variant Covid crisis. On August 20, the government put all 10 million inhabitants of the southern megalopolis, Ho Chi Minh City, under stay-at-home orders and put the army in charge of delivering food and essential supplies. Unofficial reports are circulating that the populace is furious, even rebellious over what's perceived as mismanagement of the outbreak.

Harris' mission is to signal that the unreliable, ego-driven Asia engagement of the Trump administration ended with Joe Biden's election. She's reinforcing a similar message delivered by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a brief stop in Hanoi last month. Washington wants it understood that the US intends to be a reliable partner across the full range of its bilateral engagements. Maybe some of that message will make it onto the news wires.

The Taliban's victory march makes it inevitable that Harris's meetings in both capitals will be scrutinized mainly for evidence of American resilience. Donald Trump's ego-driven approach to foreign affairs was worrisome enough. But after the jaw-dropping foreign policy debacle in Afghanistan, can either American consistency or judgment any longer be trusted, whoever's in the Oval Office?

That is a heavy burden to lay on someone stepping onto the world stage for the first time. Certainly in Singapore, and very likely in Hanoi as well, Harris's hosts will murmur encouragement. They'll listen carefully when she tells them the US has its priorities sorted now, and nod when she repeats Washington's new mantra: that it's prepared to stand with them for "a free and open Indo-Pacific region."

Harris' more important stop is Hanoi, where there's significant upside potential for the US-Vietnam relationship, and there's serious construction work to do. Per the veteran scholar-journalist Carl Thayer, both sides will be probing the other's readiness to coordinate, consult and cooperate further on an expanding list of mutual concerns. They'll identify items for follow up by experts.

Of particular urgency, Vietnam needs Covid-19 vaccines. Mainly by aggressive contact tracing and strict border controls, the Vietnamese authorities were spectacularly successful in holding the pandemic at bay without vaccinations until June, when the Delta variant got loose. Now it's raging in Vietnam's southern provinces. If Harris isn't bringing real help on vaccine supply, she might as well not come.

Among other items said to be on the agenda of the US vice president's meetings in Hanoi are these:

  • An agreement to share certain military intelligence. This presumably would include close-to-real time exchanges on Chinese naval and militia activity in the South China Sea.

  • Support for Vietnam's young semiconductor industry. Multinationals are building capacity in Vietnam, and dozens of Vietnamese firms are jostling for subcontractor roles. What Hanoi wants is assurance that the US won't hesitate to approve technology transfers.

  • Avoiding potholes while bilateral trade and investment grows, and deepening mutual engagement, especially in science and technology, education and health.

The US likely has several big 'asks,' for example that Hanoi:

  • Adhere zealously to GATT commitments, particularly rules of origin. In other words, take care not to help Chinese manufacturers evade punitive tariffs.

  • Rein in 'Ocean Lotus,' a world-class hacker group based in Vietnam which, under the patronage of the Ministry of Public Security, has a well-established record of targeting dissident groups and foreign enterprises.

  • Observe human rights commitments made in UN conventions. In particular, be more tolerant of peaceful advocacy or protest, and of religious activity by sects not licensed by the regime.

Informal reports of US Defense Secretary Austin's brief visit to Vietnam last month and speculation about the vice president's agenda there agree that an undeclared object of this American attention is to draw Hanoi closer to the Japan-US-Australia-India "Quad" and its "free and peaceful Indo-Pacific" vision. The Vietnamese have in the past held strictly to a policy of no foreign alliances, a stance now somewhat threadbare but nonetheless considered vital to moderating Chinese behavior off Vietnam's coast.

In both Vietnam and the United States, there's been speculation that the two governments might decide to upgrade their relations from "comprehensive partnership" to "strategic partnership," the next best thing to Vietnam's "comprehensive strategic partnership" with China. In June, during hearings on Marc Knapper's nomination to be ambassador to Vietnam, several senators advocated rewarding Vietnam with strategic partner status if it would ease up on its pursuit of political dissidents. In Hanoi, that sort of linkage is a non-starter, though Knapper was too polite to say so.

China is said to set considerable store in these semantic distinctions, which is why in the past Hanoi has been content to let the facts of a relationship speak for themselves. Beijing is cranky enough already. Thus there's no reason to expect dramatic headlines from Hanoi as Harris flies home.

David Brown is a retired US diplomat with extensive experience in Vietnam and is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel

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