HANOI — U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris turned her attention to issues surrounding worker rights and civil liberties Thursday as she closed out her visit to Southeast Asia, elevating activists in a region of the world known for its challenges and restrictions to human rights.
In Vietnam, Harris participated in what her team billed as a "changemakers" event with activists working on LGBTQ rights and climate change.
"It is critical that if we are to take on the challenges we face that we do it in a way that is collaborative, that we must empower leaders in every sector, including of course government but community leaders, business leaders, civic society if we are to maximize the resources we collectively have," Harris said.
Later Thursday, Harris will speak at a news conference before beginning the trip back to the U.S.
Vietnam has been criticized for restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, widespread violence against women in the country and its crackdown on individuals it deems political dissidents. While Harris spoke about the need to defend women and rights for transgender people, she expressed no criticism of the government of Vietnam for its abuses while reporters were in the room.
The events were capping off a weeklong trip that took Harris to Singapore and Vietnam in a bid to strengthen U.S. relations with the two countries and affirm the commitment to a region that's grown increasingly important to U.S. efforts to counter China's influence globally.
The vice president spent the week meeting with leaders in both nations to discuss ways in which the U.S. can deepen economic and defense ties. She unveiled new agreements with Singapore to combat cyberthreats and tackle climate change, and aid to Vietnam to develop economic opportunities and combat the coronavirus, among other things.
While Harris has emphasized that her visit to Southeast Asia is intended to foster a positive relationship with countries in the region and expand U.S. cooperation and involvement, she also spent the visit ramping up Biden administration rhetoric toward China, issuing repeated warnings to the country to end its aggression in the disputed South China Sea.
"We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims," she said Wednesday.
Harris avoided the unscripted gaffes that overshadowed her first foreign trip, to Guatemala and Mexico in the spring, where her declaration to migrants — "do not come" — and her flip dismissal of questions about her refusal to visit the border drew criticism from both sides of the aisle. Harris took questions from reporters at multiple points that trip, and sat for an extended cable news interview.
In Asia, Harris stayed focused on her meetings with officials and Biden administration talking points on China. While questions surrounding the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan dominated her first day in Singapore, Harris emphasized the same message delivered by President Joe Biden and his aides — that the U.S. must remain focused on the evacuations, and not recriminations about what went wrong.
But she was certain to face more questions on Afghanistan, the U.S. confrontation with China and its engagement in the Indo-Pacific during her news conference Thursday.
On her trip home, Harris will stop at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii to meet with servicemembers. Then she'll turn her focus to U.S. politics at an event in the San Francisco area for California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall attempt.