Far from the routine, Asia Trip presents thorny tests for Kamala Harris

TOKYO — A day after laying flowers at the funeral altar of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s slain former prime minister, Vice President Kamala Harris traded the solemn setting of the state ceremony for Yokosuka Naval Base in the south of Tokyo, where it targeted China. aggression against Taiwan.

“China has challenged the freedom of the seas. China has deployed its military and economic power to coerce and intimidate its neighbours,” Ms. Harris said Wednesday during an interview with US sailors aboard the Howard, a naval destroyer. “And we’ve seen disturbing behavior in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and more recently, provocations across the Taiwan Strait.”

What at first glance seemed like a routine and symbolic trip for the vice president has become a delicate diplomatic dance in a region increasingly unnerved by military advances by North Korea and China.

Just days after North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile test off its east coast, Ms Harris pledged to make a stopover Thursday in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. Meeting with frustrated South Korean officials hours before Mr Abe’s funeral, Ms Harris defended Congress-approved legislation that excludes electric vehicles built outside North America from tax credits, according to a senior administrative official.

And in a region on China’s tightrope, Ms. Harris affirmed the administration’s support for Taiwan, a week and a half after President Biden once again appeared to move beyond a policy of “ambiguity.” strategic” claiming that the United States would defend the island. if China invaded.

“We will continue to oppose any unilateral change to the status quo,” Ms. Harris said, “and we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, consistent with our longstanding policy.”

The question of how far the United States would go to defend Taiwan has become more pressing among allies in the region after China responded to President Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island last month by conducting its drills. widest ever in the air and water around Taiwan. .

While Ms. Harris’ aides denied that Mr. Biden’s comments earlier this month on Taiwan had affected their meetings with leaders from Japan, Australia and South Korea, a senior official said the China’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s visit was central to their discussions.

“Biden’s most recent and previous statements on Taiwan have kept the China-Taiwanese issue high on the regional agenda,” said Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University and senior director for Asia at the Council. national security from the White House to Obama. administration.

“It matters to U.S. allies and policymakers across Asia who are asking the key question: what is the line between deterrence and provocation? he added. “And nobody knows where that line is, and exploring those borders is a complicated business.”

Ms Harris highlighted the administration’s focus on China and Taiwan when addressing sailors aboard the Howard, accusing Beijing of using Ms Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan to carry out an “unprecedented show of military force.” , a pressure campaign against Taiwan, a series of destabilizing actions”. .”

She listed examples of growing threats to assembled sailors, noting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea’s test launch and “key elements undermining the rules-based international order”. by China. When Ms Harris last accused China of aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, Beijing responded by accusing the United States of causing tension in the region.

This isn’t the first time Ms. Harris has faced a maze of challenges in an effort to bolster her bona fide foreign policy as the Biden administration faces low approval ratings at home.

Last year, during her first visit to Asia as vice president, Ms Harris faced questions about the historic parallel between the US evacuation of American citizens in 1975 from Saigon, Vietnam, and the scenes Desperate Afghans running behind US military planes as the Taliban took control of Kabul after US forces withdrew.

She visited Emmanuel Macron, the French president, weeks after the United States and Australia kept Paris in the dark about a plan to build nuclear-powered submarines, a deal that France called a “betrayal” of an existing deal to buy French-made conventional submarines. under.

During her visit to Guatemala, she demanded that asylum seekers “not come” to the United States amid growing criticism of the administration for maintaining a Trump-era policy of turning back migrants amid rising illegal crossings at the US-Mexico border.

Ms Harris appeared to face controversy again this week in Japan. His attendance at the state funeral came as thousands of protesters took to the streets to oppose the event, calling it a waste of public money and a unilaterally imposed celebration of a divisive leader.

Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at Singapore’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the administration’s decision to send Ms Harris to the funeral just eight days after the president attended Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral risked undermine the administration’s stated priority of strengthening alliances in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China.

“It’s an interesting comparative moment where Biden dropped everything to go to Queen Elizabeth’s funeral and sort of sit in the back of the Abbey with the leaders of other countries,” Ms. Connelly. “The fact that Shinzo Abe only gets vice president,” he added, “shows that America is kind of trapped in this Atlanticist perspective and we can’t really change our perspective. .”

But that didn’t mean America’s Asian allies weren’t keen to take up with Ms. Harris the military challenges posed by China and North Korea.

Almost immediately after arriving in Tokyo on Monday, Ms Harris called the United States’ alliance with Japan, which is pushing to dramatically increase its military spending, a “cornerstone” of peace in the region. On Tuesday, after announcing that Ms Harris would become the first senior Biden administration official to visit the DMZ, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo made clear his own country’s concerns over nuclear capabilities of North Korea.

“It was very rare for a country to spell out how it will use nuclear, you know, nuclear ambitions in such an explicit way,” Han said, referring to a new law passed in North Korea saying that the country will launch a nuclear attack if the United States or South Korea threaten their leader’s grip on power.

“We really should enter into real cooperation and work together to create a really effective deterrent against potential North Korean provocations,” Han added.

The US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan arrived in Busan, a southeastern port in South Korea, earlier this month for a joint exercise with the South Korean military. A few days later, North Korea conducted its first ballistic missile test in nearly four months.

But as the two nations have recommitted to working to deter the North, one of the landmark achievements of Mr. Biden’s national agenda has become a source of tension.

A senior official traveling with Ms Harris said South Korean officials had raised concerns about Mr Biden’s Curbing Inflation Act, which provides tax credits for U.S. buyers of electric vehicles made in North America.

South Korean leaders have felt ‘betrayed’ by the law, particularly after Mr Biden joined the chairman of Hyundai earlier this year in Seoul to celebrate the South Korean company’s investment in a new car factory. electric vehicle and battery manufacturing in Savannah, Georgia, said Frank Aum, senior Northeast Asia expert at the US Institute of Peace.

“That’s one of the tension issues right now,” Aum said.

Ms Harris is expected to discuss the matter further with Yoon Suk Yeol, South Korea’s president, when he visits Seoul on Thursday. Ms Harris will also host a business roundtable with women, a sign of the administration’s concern over the gender policies of Mr Yoon’s new Conservative government. During his campaign, Mr Yoon said he intended to shut down the Department for Gender Equality and Family.

But before Ms. Harris turned her attention to Korea, she sought to assert the administration’s focus on Beijing.

Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, said the administration’s investments in the semiconductor industry and military assistance to Ukraine have “enhanced the American brand, especially relative to to China’s failure, housing, technological repression and a slowing economy.”