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‘Bullying and excessive’: Kamala Harris keeps up pressure on China

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US Vice-President Kamala Harris has again charged China with bullying its south-east Asian neighbours, the second time in two days she has attacked Beijing during a regional visit aimed at countering China’s growing influence.

Earlier on Wednesday, Chinese state media accused Harris of seeking to drive a wedge between China and other nations with her comments in Singapore that Beijing used coercion and intimidation to back its unlawful South China Sea claims.

Speaking in Hanoi on Wednesday, Harris said there was a need to increase pressure on Beijing over its maritime claims.

“We need to find ways to pressure, raise the pressure […] on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge, its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” said Harris during a meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, lay claim to parts of the South China Sea, which is crossed by vital shipping lanes and contains gas fields and rich fishing grounds.

China has established military outposts on artificial islands in the South China Sea and objects to foreign warships sailing through what it claims is its sovereign waters.

The US Navy regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” operations through the disputed waters, which China objects to, saying they do not help promote peace or stability. In 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China’s claim, but Beijing has rejected the ruling.

“While pointing a finger at China and accusing it of ‘coercion’ and ‘intimidation’, Harris wilfully ignored her own hypocrisy in attempting to coerce and intimidate regional countries to join Washington in its scheme to contain China,” the state run China Daily said in an editorial responding to Harris’ earlier comments in Singapore.

Vaccines have also been at the forefront of an American diplomatic offensive, with south-east Asia accounting for about a fifth of all doses the US has given globally. The Biden administration is aiming to bolster ties with countries in China’s backyard, with Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and now Harris visiting the region over the past few weeks.

Harris said the US would donate an additional 1 million Pfizer vaccines to Vietnam, which would start arriving within 24 hours, bringing the total to 6 million so far.

While Vietnam has become increasingly worried about China’s assertiveness over disputed territory, it has avoided overtly siding against Beijing along with other south-east Asian nations keen to balance ties between the world’s biggest economies. Vietnam announced Tuesday that China would give it another 2 million vaccine doses, with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh telling Beijing’s envoy that his country maintained an independent foreign policy and wouldn’t join an alliance against another country.

Harris’ trip from Singapore to Vietnam was delayed several hours by an investigation into a possible case of the so-called Havana Syndrome in Hanoi, administration officials said.

The investigation was in its early stages and officials deemed it safe for Harris to make her scheduled stop in Vietnam, which is part of her trip across Asia meant to reassure allies about American foreign policy amid the tumultuous evacuation of US forces from Afghanistan.

The Havana Syndrome is the name for a rash of mysterious health incidents first reported by American diplomats and other government employees in the Cuba capital beginning in 2016.

It was not immediately clear who was affected by the syndrome, though officials said it was not someone who worked for the Vice-President or the White House, according to the officials, who were not authorised to speak publicly about an ongoing investigation.

The US embassy in Hanoi issued a statement saying the delay was because Harris’ office learnt about a report of a “recent possible anomalous health incident” in the Vietnamese capital. The embassy provided no details, but said Harris’ office decided to travel to Hanoi “after careful assessment”.

The US government uses “anomalous health incident” to describe the syndrome. Some of those impacted report hearing a loud piercing sound and feeling intense pressure in the face. Pain, nausea, and dizziness sometimes followed.

Similar, unexplained health ailments have since been reported by Americans serving in other countries, including Germany, Austria, Russia and China. A variety of theories have been floated to explain the incidents, including targeted microwaves or sonic attack, perhaps as part of an espionage or hacking effort.

Particularly alarming are revelations of at least two possible incidents in the Washington area, including one case near the White House in November in which an official reported dizziness. Administration officials have speculated that Russia may be involved, a suggestion Moscow has denied.

Harris was set to depart for Hanoi on Tuesday evening after delivering a speech in Singapore, castigating China for its incursions into the South China Sea, and a discussion of supply chain issues with business leaders.

But the flight was delayed for more than three hours and Symone Sanders, Harris’ chief spokesperson, refused to explain. Unprompted, Sanders volunteered that Harris was “well” although reporters had seen the Vice-President several times on Tuesday and had no reason to be concerned about her health.

Congress has raised alarms over such attacks, finding rare bipartisan support in the House and Senate for continued government-wide investigation into the syndrome, response as well as millions in support for American personnel medical monitoring and treatment.

The Biden administration is facing new pressure to resolve the mystery as the number of reported cases of possible attack has sharply grown. But scientists and government officials aren’t yet certain about who might have been behind any attacks, if the symptoms could have been caused inadvertently by surveillance equipment – or if the incidents were actually attacks.

Whatever an official review concludes could have enormous consequences. Confirmation that a US adversary has been conducting damaging attacks against US personnel would unleash calls for a forceful response by the United States.

For now, the administration is providing assurances that it takes the matter seriously, is investigating aggressively and will make sure those affected have good medical care.

One key analysis identified “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy” as the most plausible culprit. Published in December by the National Academy of Sciences, the report said a radio frequency attack could alter brain function without causing “gross structural damage.” But the panel could not make a definitive finding on how US personnel may have been hit.

And a declassified 2018 State Department report cited “a lack of senior leadership, ineffective communications, and systemic disorganisation” in responding to the Havana cases. The report says the cause of the injuries was “currently unknown”. The document was published by George Washington University’s National Security Archive.

Chris Miller, the acting defence secretary during the last months of the Trump administration, created a Pentagon team to investigate the suspected attacks. That was after he met a soldier late last year who described how, while serving in a country Miller wouldn’t identify, he had heard a “shrieking” sound and then had a splitting headache.

By Alexandra Jaffe and Jonathan Lemire – The Age (.au) – August 25, 2021 

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