US Vice-President Kamala Harris has met top leaders in Singapore on the first working day of her trip to South-East Asia and struck partnerships to tackle cyber threats, supply disruptions and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms Harris met Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Halimah Yacob during a trip aimed at bolstering ties with partners in the region as part of Washington’s efforts to counter China’s growing economic and security influence.
Singapore is not a US treaty ally, but remains one of its strongest security partners in the region with deep trade ties. However, it also seeks to balance its relationships with the US and China by not taking sides.
The country is home to the biggest port in South-East Asia, and supports continued free navigation in the area, where China is growing increasingly assertive – a concern US officials will address during Ms Harris’s seven-day visit to the region, which also includes a trip to Vietnam.
The two countries remain committed to tackling “common security challenges” in the region, according to senior US administration officials, who spoke ahead of the meeting.
One of the officials said they are “not asking countries to choose” between the US and China.
“We’re trying to develop these partnerships for all manner of positive reasons that are in our mutual interest … we have also said that even as we stand for clear principles like freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, we are also not seeking conflict,” the official said.
The disputed South China Sea, a strategic waterway with potential oil and gas riches, has competing claims by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
The US and Singapore reached security agreements on Monday that reaffirm America’s presence in the region through “rotational deployments of US P-8 aircraft and littoral combat ships to Singapore,” according to a factsheet of the meeting shared by the White House.
Part of Ms Harris’s task during the trip will also be to convince leaders in Singapore and Vietnam that Washington’s commitment to South-East Asia is firm and not a parallel to Afghanistan following a chaotic pull-out by the US and its allies there.
Curtis Chin, Asia fellow at the Milken Institute and former US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, said “restoring trust and confidence in US steadfastness and staying power … must come first.”
During Ms Harris’ visit, the US and Singapore also agreed to expand cybersecurity cooperation in the financial sector, the military and enhance information exchange on cyber threats.
Other initiatives include starting a US-Singapore dialogue on building supply chains.
The Biden White House is tackling a severe supply shortage of semiconductor chips in the US that has seriously hurt car manufacturers and contributed to inflation.
The countries also struck a partnership to fight COVID-19 and prepare for the next pandemic and agreed to tackle the global climate crisis, promote smart cities and green building standards throughout ASEAN.