America's new opportunity in Asia

America's new opportunity in Asia

Listening to Kamala Harris's speeches is really inspiring. "I may be the first woman to hold this office. But I won't be the last," the 56-year-old half-Asian declared after being elected to the vice presidency of the United States.

Born to immigrant parents -- her father from Jamaica, her mother from India -- Ms Harris is no stranger to breaking barriers. The first female district attorney in San Francisco and the first Black female DA of any city in California, she went on to serve as California's attorney-general. In 2016 she became just the second Black woman and the first South Asian-American elected to the US Senate.

Growing up with activist parents inspired a lifelong passion in Ms Harris to make changes in the world. She remains a voice for girls and young women, particularly those of colour, who for the first time have someone who looks like them in one of the highest offices in Washington.

"Do not let anyone ever tell you who you are," she told young women at Spelman College, about other people's limited expectations of women. "Too often women are put down, have their identity dictated to them, or are belittled for their hopes and dreams but that shouldn't be the case."

When we women doubt our self-worth, this speech reminds us what really matters. "Do not be burdened by someone else's assumptions of who you are," she said. "Do not be burdened by their perspectives or judgement."

So it was with a sense of hope and relief that I and others watched last week as Ms Harris stood by President Joe Biden on their inauguration day in Washington. Relief because there was no violence from supporters of former president Donald Trump. Hope because we see a chance for positive changes and a less confrontational approach to international affairs and relations with Asia.

On his first day in the Oval Office, Mr Biden set out to reverse several decisions made by his predecessor. That included rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change and halting America's departure from the World Health Organization.

But the most stunning decision to me was the national mask mandate on federal property. Come on, do people in the supposedly most advanced country on earth still need to be told to do this for the sake of their own safety and that of others? It seems they did, sadly.

It is understandable that a brand-new administration will want to move fast to distinguish itself from its predecessor. But I agree with Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore, who wrote that "Just not being Trump is not a strategy".

But as a former senator with great experience in foreign policy, Mr Biden is clearly eager to move forward. "We're a Pacific power, and we'll stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Asia Pacific region," the new president wrote in October.

Unlike Mr Trump, President Biden understands the value of working with allies in Asia. But it was noteworthy that he used the term "secure and prosperous" rather than the usual "free and open" to describe the Indo-Pacific in his first communications with the leaders of Japan, Australia, South Korea and India. There was some nervousness as the region awaited further clarification.

Amid China's increasing assertiveness, the US under Mr Biden needs a new rebalancing policy. The appointment of Kurt Campbell, who helped craft former president Barack Obama's "pivot" to Asia, as coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council is a welcome start.

Mr Kausikan contends that Asean centrality must be a "core component of the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy". America must also reinforce "Japan's proactive leadership to amplify US strategic goals in Southeast Asia", he wrote in Nikkei Asia.

Diplomacy with China will be a bigger challenge. Political constraints at home will make it hard for Mr Biden to wind down his predecessor's trade war in the near term, but he can lay the groundwork for a more productive rivalry between the world's two biggest economies.

As Ms Harris said recently, America "is a country of possibilities". I think we in Asia are now ready to give our longtime strategic allies the opportunity to renew our relationship. And we hope for the best for the prosperity of both sides.

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