Kamala Harris photo

Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Vice President's Trip to Southeast Asia

August 19, 2021

Via Teleconference

5:34 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you so much. Hello, everyone. My name is [senior administration official]. We really appreciate you all for joining us. This briefing will be on background, attributed to "senior administration officials." And the contents of this call will be embargoed until the end of this call.

We wanted to take some time before the Vice President departs for Singapore and Vietnam to do two things: first, lay out the goals and purpose of her trip, and, secondly, walk through her itinerary and program. We'll then open it up for Q&A.

For your awareness, also on the line today is [senior administration officials]. They will be known from here on as "senior administration officials" or "my colleagues."

So, with that, I will turn it over to my colleague.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, [senior administration official], and thanks to everybody for joining. I know it's been a busy news week and continues to be, but we wanted to start with a little bit of context about the Vice President's trip and how it fits into the wider Biden-Harris foreign policy, actually stressing two points there: One is the importance we place on the Indo-Pacific region, and, the other, the importance we place on the partnership and engagement.

On the first point, the Indo-Pacific, it's important to really think about this trip as part of a trajectory that we have been on since day one of the administration where this region is concerned.

Since taking office, the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and other senior officials have been engaging extensively with leaders from the Indo-Pacific region, where we have enduring strategic and economic interests.

The Vice President herself has met with Prime Minister Suga of Japan, President Moon of the Republic of Korea. She participated in the first Quad Leaders Summit ever with the leaders of Australia, India, and Japan. And she's spoken separately with Prime Minister Morrison of Australia and Prime Minister Modi of India.

And so, on top of all of that, now she's going to Southeast Asia, which is at the heart, the center of the Indo-Pacific region, to continue with these engagements.

This region -- Southeast Asia -- really matters to the United States. So we're talking about a region of over 600 million people -- 380 million of whom are under 35 years old.

Collectively, it's projected to be the fourth-largest economy in the world by the year 2050. And we export more than $120 billion of goods and services per year to the region, which supports an estimated 625,000 U.S. jobs from all 50 states.

So that's on the region. On the second point about the importance of partnerships and engagement: As you all know, the Biden-Harris administration has been focused on revitalizing our alliances and partnerships around the world. And in this trip, the Vice President will be doing just that -- working with existing partners and through multilateral organizations, like ASEAN.

The administration is focused on maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region. This trip will further that goal, and the Vice President will advance that vision in all of her meetings.

The administration is also making clear that we have an enduring commitment to this region, that we're part of the Indo- Pacific and in the region to stay. And that'll be another theme of the trip.

Let me just drill down briefly on the themes, to be a little bit more specific. I've stressed strengthening and deepening our partnerships with the region -- but, obviously, most specifically in this case, with Singapore and Vietnam -- the countries she's visiting -- to deliver results for the American people.

The Vice President recognizes the importance of these partnerships for the American people and even simply the significance of showing up and engaging on the ground. In particular, she'll be focused on three key areas: global health, economic partnership, and security. She'll work to open up new areas of cooperation and align our approaches to new and emerging challenges, because our fates are intertwined on all three.

And you'll hear the Vice President talk about addressing the threat of climate change, reaffirming our nation's values, and our commitment to the rules-based international order, worker rights, and human rights.

And she'll make clear throughout this trip that we have an enduring -- enduring commitment to this region.

Before turning it back to [senior administration official], who will walk you through the itinerary, let me just place what I've said in the context of the Vice President's own approach to foreign policy that she's talked a lot about, which includes this idea that we're really entering and are in a new era.

The global pandemic has been a turning point. She believes that the world is more interconnected and inderpendent [sic] -- interdependent than ever before, and that's why she believes so strongly in strengthening our partnerships -- particularly our partnerships in Southeast Asia and the Indo Pacific are critical.

And that's how she's thinking about this trip -- again, reinforcing something that is at the heart of the Biden-Harris approach to the world.

And secondly, the Vice President is very forward-looking. She is focused on the threats of the future, not of the past. She recognizes that much of the history of the 21st century will be written in the Indo-Pacific, and we have enduring interests there, and that's why she is both so focused on this region and making this trip.

Back over to [senior administration official] for the itinerary.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you so much, [senior administration official].

I'll take a moment to run through the itinerary. We will have more to say on each of these events and specific topics the Vice President will discuss as we get closer to these events, and that will be read out by the pool. But, for now, we'll do a brief overview, and we're going to take this day by day.

We are departing the United States on Friday and arrive in Singapore on Sunday. The Vice President's first day of activities is Monday.

On Monday, the Vice President will start the day by meeting with government officials. She will have a courtesy call with President Halimah Yacob. We will make sure we send spelling out for folks.

Then, the Vice President will have a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to discuss the full range of issues in our bilateral relationship. She will then have a press conference with Prime Minister Lee.

In the afternoon, Vice President Harris will go to Changi Naval Base, and she will give brief remarks to the U.S. sailors on the USS Tulsa, a Littoral Combat Ship currently visiting Singapore. The Vice President's visit to the base will underscore the strong security ties between Singapore and the United States.

And, you know, our partnership with Singapore really is the bedrock of our security presence in Southeast Asia, and the Vice President will discuss security and defense issues while there.

On Tuesday, again in Singapore, in the morning, the Vice President will be deliver a speech. We'll have more to say on the content of her remarks as we get closer. But to briefly preview them, she will be making the case as to why our partnerships matter, and, in particular, our partnerships in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. She'll make clear that the U.S. has an enduring commitment to the region, and she'll outline key areas of our partnership and how we intend to strengthen those areas.

Overall, the Vice President will really be discussing our vision for engagement in the region and how the United States will deliver on it.

Following the speech, Vice President Harris will then participate in a roundtable with supply-chain thought leaders. As you all know and as many of you have asked about in advance of the call, the Biden-Harris administration is focused on supply chain resiliency, and she'll be discussing these issues with government officials and private sector representatives.

Vice President Harris will then meet with Embassy Singapore staff and families, and she will depart Singapore for Hanoi. And we will arrive in Hanoi on Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday, we'll begin our official program in Vietnam.

In the morning, she'll have several government meetings. Following those meetings in the afternoon, she will lead the U.S. delegation in cohosting, along with the government of Vietnam, the official launch of the CDC Southeast Asia Regional Office.

The Vice President will be joined in person with Vietnamese officials and virtually with government officials from the ASEAN nations, plus Papua New Guinea.

Vice President Harris will discuss with these government officials the United States' response to the pandemic and how we all need to work together to end to end the pandemic and strengthen global health security.

On Thursday -- the Vice President's second day in Vietnam -- she'll meet with a number of civil society representatives, which we are calling a "Change Makers Event." This event will really underscore the importance we place on supporting civil society as a driver of social change.

Vice President Harris will also participate in an embassy lease signing event.

And finally, we'll meet with Embassy Hanoi's staff and families.

En route home, the Vice President will be stopping in Honolulu, Hawaii, and she will be delivering remarks to and meeting with servicemembers at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

So, with that, as you can see, the Vice President has a very robust schedule during this trip. And we are happy to take your questions.

As a reminder, for folks who may have joined late or after this call has already started, this call is on background, attributed to "senior administration officials" and is embargoed until the conclusion of this call.

Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this call. I wanted to see if you can comment. I know that this was planned -- this trip was planned long before the events in Afghanistan. But with the comparisons to what happened in Saigon over 40 years ago, it is going to be a bit of the elephant in the room. Is the Vice President prepared to talk about Afghanistan while in Vietnam?

And how would she respond to people or to allies who may be concerned about the U.S. willingness to keep its commitments, based on what happened in Afghanistan and the chaos that has happened during this evacuation?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for your great question. Let me say a couple of things about that. First, on Afghanistan: Look, it's hugely important to this country. The President, the Vice President, the entire national security team have been working 24/7 and focused like a laser on working this issue and, in particular, over the last two days, obviously, getting Americans out and others who've supported and worked with the United States on the ground and other vulnerable Afghans. It's been an overwhelming focus and priority of the whole team, including the Vice President.

And she will continue to work on those issues and be in constant contact with Washington and her colleagues during this trip.

At the same time, it is also true that Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific are really important, and that's why she's going. And I talked a little bit of it before, about the reasons why it's so strategically important and economically important to this country. That hasn't changed with Afghanistan.

And we can do more than one thing at a time. And we're going to do more than one thing at a time as we focus on these two huge priorities -- (coughs) -- excuse me -- for the United States.

As for the second part of your question -- and my colleague may want to elaborate on this -- but I would just say this, because you asked about our commitments and what this says about them: We have been strong security and economic partners of countries in the Indo-Pacific for more than 70 years, and we've been steadfast partners, and we have increasing security partnerships with those countries. They want us to increase those security partnerships.

And I think most people also observing this understand the different challenges in different regions and, frankly, that there's a difference between ensuring open sea lanes of comm- -- sea lanes in Asia, which is a priority for the United States, and the continued involvement in another country's civil war.

So, I think, for all of those reasons, we are confident that our partners throughout the Indo-Pacific see the United States as a steadfast partner. And that's certainly going to be one of the things the Vice President emphasizes on this trip.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. I think we can take our next question.

Q: Hi, thank you. A couple of questions. One is: Are there any deliverables? I've heard some talk that, you know, there's a desperation for more vaccines in the region. Will there be any announcements related to vaccines?

And separately, following up on Ayesha's question: Is it important -- especially in the competition with China, where the United States is taking a hit in its -- you know, the look of its global leadership position -- is it -- does that make it more important to sort of reach out to other countries now at this point and make sure they do see us as the kind of partner you're talking about?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, on the first, we're not going to preview any potential deliverables for the trip. What I will say is, obviously, public health and the COVID pandemic will be high on the agenda. We understand -- I think the Biden Harris administration has made clear through its actions -- the provision of vaccine -- increasing numbers of vaccines throughout the world, including more than 23 million to Southeast Asia -- that we get this issue and we understand that we have a national interest, as well as a humanitarian interest, in helping other countries deal with this problem.

So, absolutely. The Vice President will address the public health challenge associated with the pandemic.

She will also address the regional issues, including China. And maybe my colleague will say a word about that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Certainly. Look, I think the key thing is: From the very beginning of the administration, we have been focused on the importance of outreach and engagement with the Indo-Pacific. And as was -- as my colleague went over at the beginning of the call, there's been a great deal of engagement ranging from the first leader-level Quad summit.

The Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense traveled to the region for their first trips overseas and did our two-plus-two meetings in Tokyo and Seoul. And then Secretary of Defense traveled to India. We have seen the Deputy Secretary of State make several trips to the region. We've seen Secretary Austin travel there.

We've seen the first in-person meetings at the White House that the President and Vice President hosted were with the Prime Minister of Japan and the President of Korea. And you've seen Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield go to Thailand last week.

So, I think this is very much part and parcel of the administration's view of the importance of very substantive, very meaningful engagement with the Indo-Pacific. I think that this continues to be a focus, and I think the Vice President's trip is very much part of that outreach. And I think this is something that we will be looking to continue as we go forward.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. I think we can take our next one.

Q: Yes, hello. There's been some speculation that the comprehensive partnership with Vietnam might be upgraded to a strategic partnership. Do you anticipate that that will be part of the discussions? And can we anticipate any kind of announcement about that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, I think it's -- as my colleague said earlier, we're not going to discuss deliverables at this point. I think that, you know, the broader frame on this is that we very much believe in the importance of the relationship and the partnership with Vietnam. You saw that Secretary Austin traveled there in July and the Vice President traveling there now, and I think that's a sign of the commitment we have to a stronger partnership.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. And I think we have time for maybe one more.

Q: Hi, thanks very much. Good afternoon. So, my question is going back to the Vietnam -- the historic Vietnam comparison. And, I'm sorry, I know you probably didn't want these questions, but it is inevitable. There's so much comparisons being made by people about the -- tragic comparisons -- you know, the battle nature of it.

But how about the comparison -- would you like people to maybe see this trip to Vietnam in another way, which is to see it as a model of something that happened after the war? Because after all, the United States made, you know, a pretty close friendship with Vietnam, and it's still a communist country. Could that perhaps be seen as a message that the Vice President would like to be somehow transmitting to the world vis-à-vis what's going to happen in Afghanistan, obviously?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. As you rightly anticipated, we don't want to get bogged down in the historical comparisons.

As Defense Department Spokesman Kirby said the other day, or yesterday, you know, we're not focused on the history of the Vietnam War; we're focused on what's going on today in Afghanistan and doing everything we can to have the most successful outcome.

As for your other thought, I'll just say, Vietnam today is an increasing partner of the United States. And that's why the Vice President is going.

So, you know, others can speculate all they want about, you know, what took place after the war and what that led to. They're very different countries in very different parts of the world.

What is true is that the current Vietnam -- the one we are going to, the one the Vice President is traveling to -- has gone from a situation of wartime conflict against the United States, to a couple of decades of no relations with the United States, to a diplomatic relationship with the United States and elements of partnership, to a stronger and stronger partnership. And I think this visit is an opportunity to take that one level further.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you to my colleagues.

Actually, I'm told my colleagues have to run, but we do have time for one -- one last question. Thank you all for being so patient.

Q: Hi, everyone. Thanks for taking my call -- thanks for taking this call.

Quick questions on Afghanistan as well. Given the ongoing situation in the country right now, were there ever any discussions to postpone this trip for Vice President Harris and keep her in D.C.?

And secondly, I know she's been being briefed alongside the President for almost the past week now. Given the time difference that she'll be on compared to the East Coast, will she be receiving her own briefings? Will she be joining the President's briefings as well? Can you give any kind of insight into how that's going to happen?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Look, I mean, the Vice President and her team obviously constantly assess what she needs to be doing. In this case, this is a critical trip for all the reasons we have been discussing. And she -- we are all confident that she can do this trip and pursue all of these important interests while staying engaged on the subject of Afghanistan.

So, yes, she will be receiving briefings on the road. She and her team will be constantly in touch with the team back here. And she leaves, as I say, confident that she can pursue these critically important issues for the United States in Southeast Asia while at the same time being a full participant in the Afghan policy and implementation that's being led here in Washington.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you so much to my colleague. And thank you all for joining this call. Again, this call was on background, attributed to "senior administration officials." It will be embargoed until the conclusion of this call.

If you have any additional questions, please feel free to reach out to either the NSC team or the OVP team. We are working concurrently together. And we look forward to seeing some of you on our trip tomorrow evening.

Thank you so much. And this call has now concluded.

END 5:56 P.M. EDT

Kamala Harris, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Vice President's Trip to Southeast Asia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/352280

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