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WASHINGTON - Vice President Kamala Harris, in a visit to Singapore and Vietnam next week that aims to counter China's growing influence, will have to contend with a new problem: the collapse of Afghanistan, which has left allies questioning the credibility of U.S. foreign policy promises.
U.S. allies have complained they were not fully consulted on President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31, which appeared at odds with his promises to recommit to global engagement.
With the Taliban's rapid takeover putting their national security interests at risk, countries in both Europe and Asia are wondering whether they can rely on Washington to fulfill long-standing security commitments, experts say.
Harris' trip aims to establish deeper ties with Southeast Asia, a region Washington considers key to checking Chinese expansion. A senior White House official told Reuters this month the vice president's focus would be on defending international rules https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/harris-will-reject-chinas-claim-south-china-sea-during-trip-asia-2021-08-03 in the South China Sea, strengthening U.S. regional leadership and expanding security cooperation.
Regional experts like Murray Hiebert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies said Harris would have to try to reassure her hosts that Washington's commitment to Southeast Asia is firm and not a parallel to Afghanistan.
"The debacle in Afghanistan will prompt concerns again about U.S. staying power and keeping promises to allies," he said.
The chaotic evacuations from Kabul have evoked images of the 1975 U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, whose Communist-ruled government Washington sought to isolate for two decades after the Vietnam War, but with which it now enjoys warm ties given shared concerns about China.
A senior administration official said Harris' trip would show that the United States was in the region "to stay," but concerns about the outcome in Afghanistan could muddy that message.
"What has happened in Afghanistan has been quite frustrating and upsetting for a lot of countries," said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center think tank. "The concern is one day when the United States determines you are no longer as important, they can just pack up and leave and there is nothing you can do about it."
"And of course there's China trying to capitalize on that narrative."
Vietnam has been a vocal opponent of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and Singapore shares concerns about Beijing's increasingly assertive behavior in the region.
They and other Southeast Asian countries have welcomed the U.S. military presence there given China's militarization of the South China Sea and its vast coast guard and fishing fleet.