Vice President Kamala Harris accused Beijing of using coercion and intimidation to support illegal claims in the South China Sea on Tuesday, Aug. 24. Harris criticized the Chinese regime during a trip to Southeast Asia, which she described as crucial to U.S. security.

Harris’ seven-day journey to Singapore and Vietnam, only her second overseas travel, is geared at countering the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) expanding security and economic clout, as well as addressing worries over CCP claims to South China Sea areas, Reuters reported.

In a speech in Singapore, Harris outlined the United States vision for the area, which is based on human rights and rules–based international order and aims to consolidate the country’s pivot to Asia.

The U.S. rivalry with China has been dubbed “the biggest geopolitical test” of the century, and top administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, have made a series of high-profile travels to Southeast Asia.

“We know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate, and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” Harris said in her speech.

“These unlawful claims have been rejected by the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision, and Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations,” she said, referring to an international tribunal’s ruling over China’s claims in The Hague.

Beijing, on the other hand, disregarded the tribunal’s decision and, in recent years, has even extended its presence by deploying vessels to police the waterways and constructing artificial islands.

The South China Sea is a resource-rich waterway that serves as a significant commercial shipping route, with trillions of dollars in annual trade passing through it. Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines are among the various territorial claimants to the disputed sea, in addition to China, CNBC reported.

The U.S. Navy performs “freedom of navigation” operations through the disputed waters on a regular basis, which the CCP opposes, claiming that they do not contribute to peace and stability.

On Monday, Aug. 23, Harris informed U.S. sailors on board the USS Tulsa, a U.S. combat ship docked at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base, that “a big part of the history of the 21st century will be written about this very region,” and that their work defending it was crucial.

Starting her tour on Monday, Harris had a meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

They addressed the importance of regulations and freedom of passage in the Indo-Pacific area, as well as increased cybersecurity cooperation and efforts to secure crucial supply chains between their respective countries.

“Our partnerships in Singapore, in Southeast Asia and throughout the Indo-Pacific are a top priority for the United States,” Harris said on Tuesday, adding the region was “critically important to our nation’s security and prosperity”.

Part of her mission during the trip will be to persuade regional leaders that the U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia is robust and not like that of Afghanistan.

Biden has come under fire for his handling of the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the chaotic exodus that followed the Taliban’s rapid recapture of Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, Harris began her speech by discussing Afghanistan, saying that the United States was “laser focused” on “safely evacuating American citizens, international partners, Afghans who worked side by side with us, and other Afghans at risk”.

Following her address, Harris moderated a roundtable discussion on supply chain concerns with corporate executives.

Harris arrived in Singapore on Sunday, Aug. 22, and will fly to Vietnam on Tuesday afternoon before returning to the region on Thursday, Aug. 26. Her trip to the region came after a series of high-level U.S. meetings with Southeast Asian officials.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken participated in virtual ASEAN meetings, while in July Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited numerous Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

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