US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Singapore and Vietnam was unfortunately not a message from the new US administration that the “Pivot to Asia” from the days of former US President Barack Obama is now back on. If it was, we would have heard Kamala Harris opening up to a return of the U.S. to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement talks, which past President Donald Trump so dramatically pulled the United States out of in 2017.
Instead, the visit was about countering China’s expansion in the South China Sea and reassuring the region of the dedication of the U.S. to the region.
In the light of the disastrous American withdrawal from Afghanistan just a few weeks before the visit, it seems it would have offered more geostrategic value to the U.S. if Kamala Harris had discussed reopening the TPP negotiations instead of emphasizing the security threat from China, which for the Asian mindset is too confrontational and blunt for comfort.
It has also been speculated why Thailand was not included in the trip. Most likely, it was because of Thailand’s increasing reluctance to lend support to broader US strategic objectives vis-à-vis China despite its historic status as America’s closest ally in South East Asia.
If the focus had been on resuming the economic leadership role of the US in the region including both Thailand and Indonesia in the trip would have made a lot of sense and would have removed the exit from Afghanistan from the center of the attention.
But the timing may have been lost. After the Trump’s withdrawal, the remaining 11 countries renegotiated the agreement and renamed it the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, which was signed in March 2018.
The difference between the two are mostly the issues which the US had pushed for and which the TPP-11 removed. Getting those issues back on the table is likely not possible, but joining the CPTPP even from a weaker position than before the withdrawal would still be in the best geostrategic interest of both the United States and the current signatories.