Kamala Harris delves into Asian diplomacy amid questions at home about her political future

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Palawan, Philippines
CNN

Vice President Kamala Harris sticks close to her script as she responds to what Democrats hope will once again be their biggest electoral mobiliser: Donald Trump and his third bid from the White House.

“The president said he intends to run, and if he does, I will run with him,” she told CNN on Tuesday — the first time she was asked about Trump’s 2024 candidacy, which he announced last week. She was speaking to a crowd of reporters aboard the Teresa Magbanua, a Philippine Coast Guard vessel stationed at the edge of the South China Sea.

Her cautious response at the end of a week’s fork-free trip to Thailand and the Philippines could serve as a reflection of Harris’ vice presidency in its second year: walk the line, but don’t make waves.

When she returns from Asia, she is stuck in a vortex of uncertainty about her place in the party if the now 80-year-old President Joe Biden does not seek a second term. The president is expected to ponder the decision over Thanksgiving and upcoming holidays with the family whose advice he will seek to seek re-election.

Harris’ trip to Asia – her third to the region since taking office – was another chance for America’s first South Asian vice president to demonstrate her ability to lead in the traditional ways of the vice presidency without overstepping her role as No. 2.

She attended a series of bilateral meet-and-greets with both Asian prime ministers and presidents, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, convened for a high-profile, last-minute meeting with Indo-Pacific countries after North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile hours before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit began and made a symbolic visit to the Philippines’ archipelago island of Palawan, potentially raising tensions with China.

With Biden in Washington, DC, for his grandson’s wedding, Harris continued his role as his top envoy on a trip to deepen ties with mostly friendly Asian nations and name the United States as the region’s best option for economic stability — part of an ongoing effort to counter China’s growing influence.

The vice president called the trip a success as she flaunted her political chops in the region and tried to cast herself as a deft leader speaking for Biden in his absence.

“It is very important that we were here today to reiterate America’s commitment to international rules and norms. This trip and this visit in particular has also been about demonstrating the strength and importance of our relationship with the Philippines, both in terms of economic issues and also security issues,” Harris said in Palawan, in a speech in which she rejected China’s aggression in the South China Sea and announced funding initiatives to strengthen the country’s systems and deepen security ties.

Still, Harris’ events were tightly scripted and the trip itself was highly choreographed.

Harris’ “brief greeting” with Xi, as her office described it, was her first face-to-face meeting with the world leader, which took place on the sidelines of APEC. It was probably Harris’ most high-profile moment of the tour, despite the lack of American press in the room to witness it. The vice president met with him just a week after Biden’s first in-person bilateral with Xi, which lasted three hours.

But unlike the president, who can share as much of a conversation as he wants, there was an obvious limit to how much Harris felt comfortable sharing. She repeatedly declined to go far beyond what was contained in a carefully calculated statement about her meeting with Xi.

“We discussed that we keep open lines of communication, that we don’t seek conflict or confrontation, but we welcome competition,” Harris told reporters at a press conference ending her trip to Thailand, dodging twice whether the conversation touched on North Korea. or Taiwan.

If the goal was to stay toffee-free, the planning seems to have paid off. The Republican National Committee only clipped moments on Twitter that may have been awkward but didn’t lend themselves to real criticism—unusual treatment of one of their most-attacked Democrats.

On the first day of APEC, a “deeply concerned” Harris rushed aides to convene a last-minute unannounced emergency multilateral meeting with allies in the Indo-Pacific region, according to a senior administration official, after North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile on Friday. ​morning – her second most high-profile moment of the trip.

Harris led her team when she was briefed on the latest launch, a White House official said, using the Indo-Pacific nation’s presence at the APEC Leaders Summit to do so. At the head of a U-shaped table inside a small room at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, the vice president accused North Korea of ​​”brazen violations of several UN security resolutions.”

“This latest behavior by North Korea is a brazen violation of multiple UN security resolutions. It destabilizes security in the region and unnecessarily raises tensions. We strongly condemn these actions and we again call on North Korea to stop further illegal destabilization,” Harris said. On behalf of the United States, I reaffirmed our ironclad commitment to our Indo Pacific Alliance.”

Her statement closely followed one the National Security Council issued hours earlier on Biden’s behalf, almost to a tee.

The last-minute nature of the meeting had aides moving quickly to capture the US press, but with no time to pre-set cameras, press from the US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Korea jockeyed for an angle – causing the photo-Op visuals to times be shaky and crooked.

Still, it was a moment that seemed almost presidential to Harris, recalling the emergency one-on-one meeting Biden called with top allies during his final day at the G20 in Indonesia, when a Russian-made missile fell within the borders of a NATO ally .

But the presidency had limits. During the week-long trip, the vice president only answered political and policy questions on two separate occasions from the group of all-female reporters who traveled with her from Washington — taking two or three questions each time.

Harris did not deviate from talking points in his responses, careful not to move beyond Biden’s position on a wide range of issues.

Harris has long sought opportunities to showcase his own interests and carve his own trajectory as a junior vice president with potential presidential ambitions.

Domestically, she has led the administration on abortion rights. And on trips abroad, Harris has told aides she wants to go outside the box when it comes to scheduling. A big part of that has been meeting women and families in different countries.

That directive was evident in Manila as she participated in a moderated conversation on women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship in a Sofitel ballroom.

“On the issue of women’s economic well-being, I think we all know, and I feel very strongly, that you lift a woman’s economic status and her family will be lifted. Her community will be lifted,” Harris said when they Filipino women nodded in agreement. “The whole community will benefit. Raise the economic status of women and the whole society benefits.”

In the Palawan fishing town of Tagburos, Harris watched women clean fish in front of a picturesque backdrop to talk about the devastation climate change and illegal fishing have had on the village.

“Hello ma’am,” they called as she approached. Harris’ translator introduced the women as her best friends.

“Best friends,” Harris said with a laugh and a wave.

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