Singapore, August 23 (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will meet Singapore’s leaders on Monday on the first working day of a trip to Southeast Asia aimed at bolstering ties as part of Washington’s efforts to counter China’s growing influence.
Harris will meet Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and later visit the Changi Naval Base and tour the USS Tulsa – a combat ship of the U.S. Navy.
Singapore is not a U.S. 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 United States and China by not taking sides.
The country is home to the biggest port in Southeast Asia, and supports continued free navigation in the area, where China is growing increasingly assertive.
Harris arrived in Singapore on Sunday at the start of a seven-day visit to the region, which will also include a trip to Vietnam. During the visits U.S. officials will aim to address Washington’s concerns about China’s claims to disputed parts of the South China Sea.
“Singapore has encouraged greater U.S. engagement in Asia, but warned that efforts to ‘contain’ China’s rise are counterproductive,” according to a report released in April by the Congressional Research Service, which conducts research and analysis for the U.S. Congress.
“Singapore has maintained generally good relations with China, at least partly as a hedge against possible U.S. retrenchment,” the report said.
In a recent interview with Reuters, Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan, welcomed the role the United States and China play in the region – reflecting the delicate diplomacy it has succeeded at and one Harris has to navigate.
He said the United States and Singapore will discuss topics such as the pandemic, the digital economy and cybersecurity.
“Leadership in the two countries are likely to be careful to avoid creating impressions that Beijing may find reason to be antagonistic about,” said Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, referring to Singapore and Vietnam, where Harris heads on Tuesday evening.
Part of Harris’s task will also be convincing leaders in Singapore and Vietnam that Washington’s commitment to Southeast Asia is firm and not a parallel to Afghanistan.
Curtis Chin, Asian fellow at the Milken Institute and former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, said the United States needs an “all-in pivot to Asia including a business pivot, and Singapore and Vietnam can be key partners in that effort.”
“Restoring trust and confidence in U.S. steadfastness and staying power though must come first,” Chin said.