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US elections 2020

Trump vs. Biden: Five things Asia should watch for in first debate

Candidates' stances on trade, visas and virus to impact region

Yard signs supporting U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden stand outside an early voting site at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Virginia.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The most hotly anticipated event of the American presidential campaign arrives Tuesday in the battleground state of Ohio, where Republican incumbent Donald Trump will square off against Democratic opponent Joe Biden.

The two men's governing philosophies are different as their debating styles, and Trump has trailed Biden lately in crucial battleground states. Tuesday's event, scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern time, is scheduled to run 90 minutes and marks the first of three presidential debates between now and Oct. 22. The sole vice presidential debate, pitting incumbent Mike Pence against Sen. Kamala Harris, is slated for Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tuesday's moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, has selected six topics: the Trump and Biden records, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in U.S. cities, and the integrity of the election.

The six 15-minute time segments are designed to "encourage deep discussion of the leading issues facing the country," according to the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates, which sponsors the quadrennial showdown.

U.S. presidential debates often tend to revolve around domestic political issues. But Asia and Asians are expected to play a significant role this time, especially as COVID-19, the effects of Trump's immigration policies on the economy, and foreign interference in the election come up.

Here's what Asia watchers need to know before the debate:

Free trade

Trump ran much of his 2016 campaign on his protectionist stance, which he has only doubled down on during his four-year term. Although he is talking much less about the first-phase deal with China that he inked in January and hyped as the biggest deal ever, the self-proclaimed "tariff man" is sticking to his playbook of extracting concessions through levies and threats of trade wars.

Less clear is where Biden now stands on free trade. The debate will offer a chance for the former vice president to articulate his own position, which has undeniably shifted since his time under then-President Barack Obama pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which Trump withdrew the U.S. shortly after taking office.

A recent attack video from the Trump campaign revisited Biden's 2016 comment on the "wisdom" of the TPP. But by mid-2019, the former vice president's message had pivoted away from the trade pact.

"TPP wasn't perfect but the idea behind it was a good one: to unite countries around high standards for workers, the environment, intellectual property, and transparency, and use our collective weight to curb China's excesses," Biden wrote in a Council on Foreign Relations questionnaire published in July 2019. He said in a Democratic primary debate that month that he would renegotiate parts of the TPP.

While Biden will likely remain committed to multilateralism, including to the World Trade Organization, whether he plans to completely undo Trump's tariffs -- against not only China, but also India and Europe -- or keep tariffs as an option as other, more left-leaning Democratic candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have said they would, will be something to watch for.


One aim of Trump's tariffs on Chinese goods was to bring companies back to the U.S.

Biden has also said an America under his leadership would invest in domestic manufacturing to face the China challenge, an apparent departure from the Obama administration's vision of increasing globalization.

"'Made in all of America' by all of America's workers" is a catchphrase on Biden's campaign website.

Smart investments in manufacturing and technology, using taxpayer dollars to buy American, and standing up to the Chinese government's abuses are some of his proposed prescriptions, with the site saying that "many of the products that are being made abroad could be made here today."

America first vs. alliances

In his recent United Nations speech, Trump reiterated his approach of putting the U.S. first, saying that "only when you take care of your own citizens will you find a true basis" for global cooperation.

"As president, I have rejected the failed approaches of the past, and I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first," he said.

As such, the president has demanded that such allies as South Korea and Japan shoulder significantly more of the costs of hosting American troops on their soil.

Biden, who has often highlighted his experience building alliances for Washington, vows on his campaign website to restore America's "respected leadership on the world stage," arguing that "our policies at home and abroad are deeply connected."

His administration will "advance the security, prosperity, and values of the United States by taking immediate steps to renew our own democracy and alliances," the site says. It says he is committed to "keeping NATO's military capabilities sharp" and will "strengthen our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and other Asian democracies."

H-1B work visas

Since issuing the "Buy American and Hire American" executive order in April 2017, Trump has been eager to narrow the path to a green card by limiting issuance of H-1B employment visas to "the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries."

The Department of Homeland Security recently submitted to the White House a draft regulation to introduce stricter rules for the H-1B program.

Biden's site, meanwhile, says: "For generations, immigrants have fortified our most valuable competitive advantage -- our spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship."

If elected, he pledges to work with Congress to increase the number of visas awarded for permanent, employment-based immigration -- but find mechanisms to temporarily reduce the number of visas during times of high unemployment.

Biden advocates awarding green cards to all foreign graduates of U.S. doctoral programs with their degrees so as not to lose highly trained workers to foreign economies.

Indians and mainland Chinese are the top two recipients of H-1B visas.


From playing down the new coronavirus in its early months to pushing hydroxychloroquine as a preventive, Trump has drawn wide criticism for his response to COVID-19.

The U.S. had more than 7.1 million cumulative confirmed cases and more than 205,000 deaths as of Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. Trump has claimed that American mortality from the virus is very low compared with other countries. Although the numbers vary with the metrics used, the U.S. has the most confirmed cases and the most recorded deaths.

Trump has touted the Operation Warp Speed program to quickly develop a vaccine -- even hinting that one could come by election day, which falls on Nov. 3 this year.

With a second wave possibly hitting the nation in the fall and winter, as experts anticipate, can Biden do a better job at containing the virus?

Biden has promised to implement public health decisions based on recommendations from health professionals and to restore trust, transparency and accountability in the government, according to his campaign site.

He proposes doubling drive-thru testing sites, working with governors and mayors to mandate masks, and taking the responsibility to ramp up production of personal protective equipment instead of leaving it to states and cities. He also pledges to invest $25 billion in vaccine manufacturing and distribution and to restore the U.S. relationship with the World Health Organization.

Furthermore, the Biden campaign proposes deploying more "disease detectives" from the Centers for Disease Control "so we have eyes and ears on the ground." This would include "rebuilding the office in Beijing, which shrunk dramatically under Trump."

COVID-19 was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Trump has blamed China for letting it become a pandemic.

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