WASHINGTON—US Vice President Joe Biden on Monday begins a week-long visit to India and Singapore where officials say he will tackle tensions over the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) “head on.”
The trip allows the White House to reassert its commitment to a strategic pivot to Asia, with Biden to discuss growing economic cooperation with the region as well as geo-political hot topics such as Afghanistan.
Notably it provides President Barack Obama’s number two a chance to confer with regional leaders on how to manage overlapping maritime claims in the West Philippine Sea — a flashpoint for the past decade.
China claims virtually all of the body of water, drawing accusations from rival claimants the Philippines and Vietnam, among others, that it is mounting a creeping takeover of disputed islets.
Biden and the Obama administration are “concerned about certain patterns of activity that have unfolded in these areas, and so I think you can expect that he will address this issue head-on while he is there,” a senior administration official said Friday.
While in Singapore, Biden will talk with leaders about Washington’s “very deep stake in making sure that these disputes are managed in a way that promotes freedom of navigation, promotes stability, promotes conflict resolution, avoids intimidation and coercion and aggression.”
Biden first travels to New Delhi, where he is scheduled to meet top leaders including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee.
On Wednesday Biden gives a policy speech at the Bombay Stock Exchange and holds a roundtable with business leaders, where he will press for stronger intellectual property protection and highlight growing trade between the world’s two largest democracies.
Bilateral trade has surged to nearly $100 billion per year, “but there is no reason it can’t be five times that much,” the administration official said.
Immigration reform currently under debate in the US Congress is of interest in India, where skilled graduates could stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of a planned overhaul that would triple the number of visas allotted to highly-skilled workers.
Biden’s trip follows Obama’s nomination of Nisha Desai Biswal as assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, the first time an Indian American would head the bureau which oversees US foreign policy with Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.
India is not party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal being negotiated by 12 nations and which Biden says he hopes will be completed this year.
But Singapore is a TPP participant, and Biden travels there Thursday. He is due to meet the city-state’s leadership as well as its founding founder Lee Kuan Yew.