The streets of Hanoi would have been empty when Kamala Harris was there last week. The city’s five million people are under lockdown as Vietnam, which has the lowest vaccination rate in Southeast Asia, grapples with the spread of the Delta variant. Events in Afghanistan increased the scrutiny on Harris, a potential future president with relatively little foreign policy experience. The tour of Singapore and Vietnam was her second foray abroad as VP. When she went to Guatemala and Mexico in June, she was criticised for telling would-be migrants not to attempt the journey to the US, and for deflecting questions about why she hadn’t visited the US-Mexico border by saying she’d ‘never been to Europe’ either.
For some time now, China has been growing increasingly aggressive toward its neighbours. This newly confident foreign policy, a shift from a decade of charming other nations in Asia, has been most evident in Beijing’s demands that other nations recognise its sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. In recent weeks, Beijing has insisted that Vietnam stop exploring for oil in the waters and delivered a blunt warning to any outside powers – i.e. the United States – not to intervene in any disputes over the Sea. Chinese vessels have cut the cables on Vietnamese ships, and China has stepped up its seizures of Vietnamese and Philippine boats, in a major breach of maritime protocol.
Over the past two weeks, a dispute between Japan and China over a series of islands claimed by both countries has spiralled into a major diplomatic incident. In response to the Japanese coastguard’s seizure of a Chinese fishing boat following a collision near the islands, Beijing has cut off high-level diplomatic talks with Japan. In both countries, nationalist protestors have taken to the streets. The dispute is part of an ominous trend.
Typhoons Ketsana and Parma, which struck the Philippines, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia in recent weeks, have killed at least 650 people and made hundreds of thousands homeless. The total cost of the damage is likely to be more than $1 billion. Over the past decade the toll of natural disasters in the region seems to have skyrocketed: the 2004 tsunami killed more than 220,000 people in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Burma; in 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed more than 140,000. Climate change has something to do with it. But so has another man-made blunder: throughout Southeast Asia, governments from Vietnam to Thailand to Indonesia to China have favoured a strategy of economic growth at any cost.