By Jasmine Wright
Vice President Kamala Harris departs for Thailand and the Philippines on Wednesday to cast the US as the Indo-Pacific’s “better partner” for economic stability amid China’s push to expand its own influence in the region. The vice president’s visit comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s weeklong trip in the same region, as he sought to to assert American leadership abroad.
The vice president will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders summit, hold bilateral meetings with Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Philippines President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos, as well as meet with other leaders, local activists and notable women to reaffirm the US’ economic commitment to the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia.
“This work builds on the president’s current and ongoing trip in Southeast Asia,” a senior administration official told reporters in a briefing call, when describing the back-to-back visits. “And when you put the two together, I think it shows a deepening of our engagement in this region. And the effort by both the president and the vice president to strengthen our alliances in the region and to invest at its critical institutions.”
Harris is visiting the region after Biden returns back to Washington, DC, for his granddaughter’s wedding.
She will double down on “economic growth and advocating for American workers and businesses,” as key themes throughout her trip, the second voyage to the region during her time in office.
The vice president will also visit the Philippine island of Palawan next week during her trip to Asia, a senior administration official told CNN. It’s a move that could create tension with China due to its proximity to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The official said Harris, who will visit Palawan next Tuesday, will be the highest-ranking US official to ever visit the island.
Reuters was first to report Harris’ visit.
Harris, The US’ first South Asian vice president, lands in Bangkok on Thursday local time and will participate in leader retreats for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders meeting on Friday and Saturday.
“She’ll lay out the key principles we think should guide APEC economies and rally other economies around our vision for the future of the rules based international economic order,” the senior administration official said.
The vice president will likely hold meetings with leaders on the margins of the summit, but the senior administration official would not say whether Harris would meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping who is scheduled to attend.
Biden held a three-hour talk Monday with his Chinese counterpart, their first in-person encounter since Biden took office and an opportunity that both sides appeared to hope would lead to an improvement in rapidly deteriorating relations. The meeting, which Biden called afterward “open and candid,” appeared to ease some tensions between the competing nations.
But on Friday, Harris will cast the US as the region’s “better partner” when she delivers remarks at the APEC CEO summit.
“There is no better partner for the economies and companies of the Indo-Pacific than the United States of America,” the senior administration official said. Harris’ remarks will touch on the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, launched earlier this year, that covers supply chains, climate, chip manufacturing and more.
“When you put it all together, frankly, we think it tells a very positive story with significant resources brought to the table. We know there’s strong demand for increased economic presence by the United States. And the vice president will make clear we have answered the call for that increased economic presence,” the senior administration official added.
Harris’ bilateral with Thailand’s Prayut comes Saturday and will focus on “climate crisis and economic development by accelerating the clean energy transition.” More deliverables of new initiatives and funding are expected.
And the official said they expect the vice president to talk about Myanmar, a topic Biden emphasized on his trip in Cambodia and Indonesia.
On Sunday, the vice president will convene a roundtable on climate and energy with a notable focus on the Mekong region alongside environmental activists before flying to Manila.
On Monday, Harris will hold a meeting with Philippine counterpart Sara Vicenta Zimmerman Duterte-Carpio before her bilateral with President Marcos to reaffirm defense commitments.
“The vice president will reaffirm our defense commitments to the Philippines and the importance of our alliance in peace and stability in the South China Sea. They will discuss upholding international rules and norms,” the senior administration official said.
Later Monday, Harris will participate in the moderated conversation with an audience of young Filipina women, continuing her efforts to meet with women while traveling abroad.
Lastly, Harris will travel to Puerto Princesa in Palawan to meet with “residents, civil society leaders, and representatives of the Philippines Coast Guard,” the senior administration official noted. And she will “reiterate the importance of international law, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”
Beijing claims control over nearly the entire South China Sea. China’s claims there extend nearly all the way to the Philippines and include groups of contested islands like the Spratly Islands.
But, as CNN has previously reported, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines also have claims in the Spratly chain, where China has transformed obscure reefs and sandbars into man-made artificial islands, fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems.
“This visit demonstrates the Biden Harris administration’s commitment to standard our Philippine ally in upholding the rules based international maritime sea, supporting maritime livelihoods and countering illegal unregulated, unreported fishing,” the official said.
Harris will also deliver remarks “underscoring the importance of international law unimpeded commerce and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”
“China can take the message it wants,” the senior administration official said of Harris’ weeklong trip.
“The message to the region is that the United States is a member of the Indo-Pacific. We’re engaged. We’re committed to the security of our allies in the region,” they added. “We are a friend and a partner. And so it’s a positive agenda for us rather than a sort of negative about competing with anybody else.”
This story has been updated with additional information.
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