VP Kamala Harris speaks in Vietnam about the South China Sea amid US-China rivalry

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam on August 24, 2021. Harris is on an official trip to Southeast Asia to gather regional allies while the US’s global leadership status is being marred by the aftermath of the aftermath in Afghanistan.

Evelyn Hockstein | AFP | Getty Images

Strategic competition between the US and China came to the fore when Vice President Kamala Harris opened the second leg of her official visit to Southeast Asia in Vietnam.

Harris told Vietnamese officials in the capital Hanoi on Wednesday that it was necessary to pressure Beijing to take action in the South China Sea. Vietnam is a vocal opponent of China’s enormous territorial claims in the strategic waterway.

“We need to find ways to put pressure and increase pressure on Beijing to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” ​​Harris said.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, is an international treaty that defines the rights and obligations of nations in space. It forms the basis of how international courts, such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, resolve maritime disputes.

Harris’ comment followed her speech in Singapore on Tuesday in which she said Beijing had continued to “force, intimidate and make claims on the vast majority of the South China Sea.”

The South China Sea is a resource-rich waterway that is a major merchant shipping route, carrying trillions of dollars of world trade every year. China claims almost all of the sea – parts of it have has also been claimed by some Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In 2016, a tribunal at China’s Permanent Arbitration Court dismissed the lawsuit as legally unfounded – a ruling Beijing ignored.

In answer At Harris’ speech in Singapore, Chinese state media accused the American vice president of attempting to drive a “wedge” between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Prior to arriving in Vietnam on Tuesday evening, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and the Chinese Ambassador to Vietnam held a previously unannounced meeting, Reuters reported. During the meeting, the Chinese ambassador pledged to donate two million doses of Covid-19 vaccine to Vietnam, according to the report.

“Biggest” geopolitical competition

While Harris was cautious about meeting Beijing, political analysts and former diplomats said there was little doubt their trip was part of US strategy to compete with China.

The rivalry between the US and China is currently the “biggest” geopolitical issue, said Kishore Mahbubani, a prominent former Singapore diplomat.

“So Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit is clearly part of the competition between the US and China,” Mahbubani, now a distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, told CNBC’s Street Signs Asia on Wednesday.

“Southeast Asia is going to be a very, very critical arena for this competition,” he said.

His opinion is shared by Curtis Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. Chin said the rise of China was “a major foreign policy challenge” for the US and much of the world, even if the aftermath in Afghanistan continues.

The United States must have its eyes on Southeast Asia, and indeed much of Asia, not just the countries with which we have formal alliances.

Curtis Chin

Senior Fellow, Milken Institute

US President Joe Biden has been criticized for handling the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. The issue overshadowed Harris’ trip to Southeast Asia as reporters focused their questions on Afghanistan at the Vice President’s joint press conference with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday.

“The United States needs to have its eyes on Southeast Asia, and indeed much of Asia, not just the countries we have formal alliances with,” Chin, a senior fellow at the Milken Institute, told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia on Wednesday.

“And when I say all things considered, it’s not just diplomatic and military engagements, but real business engagements – that is what the United States needs to focus on,” he added.

Read more about developments in Afghanistan:

In her talks with Singapore’s Prime Minister, Harris discussed issues ranging from supply chains to climate change and the pandemic.

It announced in Vietnam that the US will donate an additional one million doses of Pfizer’s Covid vaccine – bringing the total US donation to the Southeast Asian country to six million doses. Harris also opened the new Southeast Asia Regional Office of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Hanoi.

The Vice President is due to end her trip to Southeast Asia on Thursday.