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US elections 2020

Pence vs. Harris: The biggest VP debate in history?

Asia experts will watch for stances on China

Sen. Kamala Harris, left, will square off against U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah on Oct. 7. (Source photos: Reuters)

NEW YORK -- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris will be about 12 feet (3.7 meters) apart instead of the originally planned 7 feet, and separated by plexiglass, when they face off Wednesday night for their vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The precautions against the coronavirus will be stricter than those for U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in last week's presidential debate. Wednesday's exchange is expected to be heated and will likely have an outsize impact on the election.

John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank, wrote Monday that the event will be "the most important of its kind since VP debates began 40 years ago" now that Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis and hospitalization have reminded the nation that the vice president is only a heartbeat away from the presidency.

The 2020 race features the two oldest presidential nominees in American history: Republican incumbent Trump, 74, and 77-year-old Democratic challenger Biden.

Asia will be watching closely.

Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, said the circumstances may offer a unique opportunity to hear the candidates' views on important topics.

"Both Pence and Harris need to appear presidential to reassure voters and the world that they would be prepared to take over if necessary," Cronin told Nikkei Asia. "That augurs well for at least time to hear their answers to questions about the many issues we face at home and abroad."

"Kamala Harris has a great chance to show that she is smart and tough but also fully on board with Biden's desire for unifying the nation," he said. "Pence has an opportunity to show some nuance and compassion ... humanity and some humility."

Pence is seen as one of the Trump administration's China hawks, having delivered a stinging anti-Beijing speech at the Hudson Institute in October 2018. The Chinese Communist Party, he said, has used an array of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including "tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft and industrial subsidies," that had built its manufacturing base "at the expense of its competitors -- especially the United States of America."

His critical line has since been inherited by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

"Pence will use the current administration talking points on China and attempt to portray Biden-Harris as weak," Cronin said. "Harris can counter by showing the best U.S. strategy is one that has clear and achievable goals, that rallies rather than scatters allies, and avoids the extremes of war and appeasement."

American vice presidential debates rarely draw as much interest as the Oct. 7 showdown between Pence and Harris.   © Reuters

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, expects the two candidates to paint different pictures of developments with China.

"Pence will argue that it is only due to the strong unilateralism of the Trump administration that the world is waking up to the 'China threat,' pointing for example to the increasing willingness of many allies to follow the U.S. lead on Huawei and on technology controls," Alden said. "Harris will likely argue that the administration has shot itself in the foot by fighting trade wars with Europe, Japan, Canada, Mexico and others rather than focusing on China."

He suspects that Harris will make a big point of the surging U.S. trade deficit -- Trump's "favorite metric" -- and how it is the worst since the mid-2000s.

"Internationally, I think Beijing will be the most interested," Alden said. "The big question here is how much of a difference a Biden administration would make on U.S.-China relations. I actually think the differences would be quite small. The need to confront China along various dimensions increasingly enjoys strong bipartisan approach."

A Biden administration would be more predictable than Trump has been, Alden said, "but the basic shift from a cooperative relationship to a more confrontational one seems certain to continue."

Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China will be the central issue if foreign policy questions are asked, with Harris looking to differentiate from the Trump administration's confrontational approach by offering a more effective way to advance U.S. interests. 

But, she said, "I expect that domestic issues will predominate in the VP debate. There will undoubtedly be discussion about COVID."

This comes at a time when views on China are turning unfavorable across many advanced economies. According to a Pew Research Center survey released Tuesday, a majority in each of the 14 surveyed countries had an unfavorable opinion of China. Negative views reached their highest points in South Korea, Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S. since Pew began polling on the topic more than a decade ago.

American vice presidential debates have historically been relatively inconsequential and drawn far smaller audiences than their presidential counterparts.

The 2016 debate between Pence and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, had just 37 million viewers, according to TV ratings firm Nielsen. Last week's interruption-filled debate between Trump and Biden drew an estimated 73.1 million.

Since Nielsen began tracking both together in 1976, viewership of debates between vice presidential candidates has always trailed that of presidential debates. The sole exception was in 2008, when Biden debated then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the running mate to now-deceased Republican Sen. John McCain.

Pence, who has so far tested negative for COVID-19, arrived in Utah on Monday evening for the debate. By then, at least a dozen people who had attended a Sept. 26 event at the White House Rose Garden, where the vice president was present without a mask on, had tested positive.

Wednesday's event will be moderated by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.

The remaining two presidential debates are scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami, Florida, and Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee. Whether they go on as planned remains uncertain as Trump recovers from COVID-19. On Tuesday, he tweeted that he was looking forward to the Oct. 15 debate.

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