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US Vice-President Kamala Harris and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hold a joint news conference in Singapore. Photo: AFP

Singapore PM Lee backs US as ‘guarantor’ of security in Asia as Harris grilled over Afghanistan chaos

  • Kamala Harris emphasised US commitment to the region and demurred when asked about Afghanistan withdrawal, insisting Washington was ‘singularly’ focused on evacuations
  • Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore was ‘grateful’ the US had prevented terrorist groups using Afghanistan as a base, adding that Washington’s response to the unfolding crisis would shape perceptions in Asia
US Vice-President Kamala Harris on Monday began her two-nation tour of Asia by fielding a barrage of questions about Washington’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan and whether its security commitments in the region can be trusted.
Speaking in Singapore alongside Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Harris demurred when asked about the withdrawal of US forces, saying instead that Washington was “singularly” focused on the evacuation of US and Afghan citizens after Taliban militants seized control of the country.
Harris landed in Singapore on Sunday and is scheduled to deliver a major foreign policy address on Tuesday before flying to Vietnam. After meetings on Monday with Lee and his key ministers, Harris emphasised the US commitment to the region, which she said would “in large part … dictate the future of our world”.
Several agreements were announced between the US and Singapore on climate change financing, cybersecurity and public health. The delegations also discussed cooperation dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and supply chain resilience.

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The US has been criticised over its withdrawal from Afghanistan – by China and by its allies alike – but Lee struck a sympathetic tone, saying countries must make “recalculations and adjust their positions from time to time”.

The Singaporean prime minister, who is regarded by Washington as an important sounding board on Asia policy, said the US would be judged by its response to the unfolding Afghan crisis.

“What will influence perceptions of US resolve and commitment to the region will be what the US does going forward,” Lee said, adding that countries will pay close attention to how the US repositions itself, engaging friends, partners and allies while continuing to fight terrorism.

The US, Lee said, had been in Asia since World War II and had borne witness to dramatic transformation in the region. Those changes were helped on by the “benign and constructive influence of the United States as a regional guarantor of security and support of prosperity”, Lee said.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong praised the role of the US in Asia since World War II. Photo: AP

He said US intervention in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks prevented terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda using the country as a base.

“For this, Singapore is grateful,” Lee said. “We hope Afghanistan does not become an epicentre for terrorism again.”

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US President Joe Biden, who has insisted he will follow through with a pledge to draw down troops before the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks “inherited an extremely difficult situation”, Lee added.

“The US had invested considerable blood and treasure in Afghanistan,” he said. “But it was an intractable task given the complex history, geography and tribal rivalries of the place.”

Evacuations from Afghanistan continue and Lee offered the US the use of Singapore’s Airbus 330 aerial refuelling tanker.

Harris said security cooperation was a “long-standing source and reason” for the two countries prioritising ties.

South Korea wary of US plan to use military bases to process Afghan evacuees

“I reaffirmed in our meeting the United States’ commitment to working with our allies and partners around the Indo-Pacific to uphold the rules-based international order and freedom of navigation, including in the South China Sea,” said Harris, who later on Tuesday visited the Changi Naval Base, where US littoral combat ships are moored between rotational deployments in the South China Sea.

Singapore and the US are not formal treaty allies but the city state has in recent years emerged as one of Washington’s most important regional partners.

The US is Singapore’s largest source of foreign direct investment, worth about US$315 billion. In turn, Singapore is the second-largest Asian investor in the US, with direct investment stock worth US$65 billion.

Harris and Lee also discussed the possibility of reopening travel between the US and Singapore, which was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Singapore has in recent weeks begun a phased if cautious reopening of its economy and its borders as its vaccination rate approaches 80 per cent, one of the highest in the world.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris alongside the Papilionanda Kamala Harris during an orchid-naming ceremony. Photo: Reuters

The government last week opened vaccinated travel lanes with Germany and Brunei and expanded a limited programme allowing unilateral quarantine-free arrivals from Hong Kong and Macau.

Lee said his government had discussed vaccinated travel lanes with other countries and would pursue conversations with the US.

“It will depend on the vaccination progress in those countries,” he said. “It will depend on the prevalence of Covid in those countries [and the] state of the pandemic.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: harris visit haunted by question of trust