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The U.S. Pivots To Focus On Southeast Asia After The Fall Of Kabul


Vice President Kamala Harris travels to Singapore and Vietnam this coming week. Her visit is intended to emphasize the U.S. foreign policy pivot in that region. NPR's Julie McCarthy looks at how the chaotic fall of Kabul may affect those efforts.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Following the Afghanistan withdrawal, the U.S. is honing its focus on Southeast Asia. Vice President Kamala Harris arrives in the region tomorrow on the heels of one of the largest U.S.-led maritime exercises in the western Pacific since the Cold War, a 21-nation drill that underscored the importance of the Indo-Pacific to the U.S. and of offsetting China's ambitions.

Stanford University's Donald Emmerson says Southeast Asian nations sit along the disputed waters of the South China Sea and squarely in the middle of the great power U.S.-China rivalry.

DONALD EMMERSON: Yes, Southeast Asia really matters. And if you're talking about a fundamental change in the challenges that we face now, namely Russia and China, then there's got to be a policy for Southeast Asia because Southeast Asia is - what? - the canary in the coal mine, the big, fat canary in the coal mine. It's crucial.

MCCARTHY: Harris travels to Southeast Asia as the world watches desperate Americans and Afghans scramble for safe passage out of Kabul. Emmerson says the reaction among Southeast Asians to the Taliban's swift takeover is not condemnation, but amazement.

EMMERSON: That the regime in Kabul could fall so quickly and so thoroughly after 20 years of American support. So the lesson that's being drawn, it seems to me, is not that you can't trust the United States. It's that the United States is incompetent.

MCCARTHY: As alarming as the chaotic exit from Afghanistan is, Kishore Mahbubani of the National University of Singapore says Southeast Asia sees it as a continuum of U.S. foreign policy failures.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: It failed in Iraq. It failed in Libya. It's failed in Syria. So the United States makes a lot of mistakes.

MCCARTHY: Mahbubani says what the Americans lost in Afghanistan was not the war, but the long nation-building exercise that followed. The comparison between the fiasco underway in Kabul and the ignominious defeat of the Americans in Vietnam with the fall of Saigon in 1975 is one that Mahbubani says Vice President Harris may not have to worry about. He says history has played out differently and more happily than anyone could've imagined 45 years ago.

MAHBUBANI: The conventional wisdom in 1975 was that now that the Americans had left, this was the end of America's influence in Southeast Asia. But as you know, the opposite happened. The best friend of (laughter) America in Southeast Asia today is Vietnam (laughter). So I would say it's a mistake to rush into judgment on what are the long-term consequences of Kabul.

MCCARTHY: Mahbubani stressed that there's a huge reservoir of goodwill towards the U.S. in Southeast Asia.

Hanoi-based analyst Tong Khanh Linh says American credibility in the region hangs less on the mess in Afghanistan and more on resolving issues closer to home, the disputes in the South China Sea and the instability in neighboring Myanmar.

TONG KHANH LINH: We would hope for more commitment from the U.S. in trying to provide more support for the peaceful resolution in this key issues.

MCCARTHY: Tong says, ultimately, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan shows an understanding of the lesson of that war, the limits of power. Having considered the U.S. recent wars wasteful diversions, Southeast Asian countries look forward to renewed focus on them. Uppermost in their concerns - the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic. Few places have benefited more from China's vaccines, but local skepticism over their efficacy is growing as the Biden administration rushes in millions of American-made doses. And the region will listen with expectation to what more Vice President Harris has to offer.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.