JAKARTA, INDONESIA — The United States’ presidential debate between the incumbent Republican Donald Trump and former vice-president Democrat Joe Biden entered its final round on Thursday night, or Friday morning in the WIB time zone.

Both candidates exchanged views on primarily domestic issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare, immigration issues–particularly on children separated from their parents at the borders–and foreign intervention in the US polls.

Foreign policy issues such as Trump’s handling of North Korea also became the subject of the debate to a smaller extent.

The US vs China spat under Donald Trump and Joe Biden

Trump focused mainly on domestic issues during his term as President in office. Tensions with China subsequently arose due to economic reasons.

“China is the most affected by Trump’s policy due to his decision to prioritize American products.

“In my opinion, on a scale of priorities from 1 to 5, Asia is number four under the current POTUS,” Professor Arry Bainus, an international relations expert at Bandung’s Padjajaran University, told TOC in a phone interview on Wednesday (21 October).

Just a few months before Trump won the 2016 poll, he slammed China’s alleged unfair trade practices in a campaign in Pennsylvania, Reuters cited.

In March 2017, he called for stricter tariffs in anti-dumping and anti-subsidy cases.

In January 2018, the real estate mogul slapped duties on all imported washing machines and solar panels, not only those from China.

Two months later, Trump did the same thing on imported aluminium and steel.

When asked about whether US-China relations will improve under Biden—if he wins the election—the expert stated that Biden, who was vice-president under Barack Obama’s administration, will focus on human rights issues such as China’s alleged repressive acts on Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province.

Marc Joffe, a senior policy analyst at reason.org, predicts improved relations between Washington and Beijing if Biden wins.

However, he declined to comment on the South China Sea issue.

ASEAN appears to not be a priority under Trump

Trump has only met one ASEAN leader since March last year, namely Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in New York in September, SCMP reported.

In April this year, however, Trump spoke to Rodrigo Duterte on the phone over COVID-19 and security cooperation between the US and the Philippines.

CSIS Director for Southeast Asia Studies Brian Harding opined–as reported by CNN Indonesia–that Trump’s focus on nuclear weapon rivalry with China and North Korea has been one of the factors in the lack of prioritization of ASEAN by his administration.

Despite that, the US still considers Indonesia one of the most important partners. State Secretary Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit Indonesia next week, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

How do both candidates see the South China Sea dispute?

Arry said that regardless who wins the presidential election next month, the South China Sea situation will remain unchanged, given that the US does not want to sacrifice its interests in ASEAN.

“Let’s say, even though the US does not like the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte, Washington still has some interests that should be protected there,” the expert added.

ASEAN does not want to be dragged into the US-China rivalry in the disputed waters. However, it is unlikely for tensions to worsen even with the deployment of fleets from non-claimant countries such as Australia.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle last year, Singapore defence minister Ng Eng Hen said it is unlikely for “an all-out confrontation” to happen, as the cost of conflict in the South China Sea is too high.

“All the parties involved — the claimant states and the international community — recognize that the price is too high and the issues in the South China Sea do not warrant an actual physical confrontation,” the minister said.

Is Trump ‘weak’ on North Korea?

In the debate on Thursday, Biden accused Trump of being too weak on North Korea, given the latter’s praise on Washington’s ties with Pyongyang.

Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un met three times, with the third time being just last year — the summit, however, failed to produce a concrete solution on Pyongyang’s denuclearization.

The US and North Korea have different perceptions over the term denuclearization. The former wants total dismantlement of the latter’s nuclear arsenal before the sanction is removed, while the latter wants a gradual lift of the embargo.

Despite the stalled meetings, Arry hailed Trump’s willingness to have talks with Kim, seeing that there is some progress compared to other US presidents.

“In international relations, the meeting between political elites is important … At least Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un can meet face to face to share their thoughts (despite the meetings’ failure),” Arry said.

If Biden becomes the next POTUS, he will likely continue what Obama has done by adopting a “strategic patience” approach, which may see him refusing to get involved with North Korea directly unless the country offers concessions in advance.

Joffe raised concerns over Biden’s likely interventionist policy if he wins the November polls.

“Right now, I am concerned that a future Biden administration would be more inclined to intervene in the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“Since Biden would likely rely on Obama-era security officials who have demonstrated a willingness to intervene in former Soviet states as a counter to Russia, they may decide to use this conflict as a rationale to send more intelligence agents or even troops into the area,” Joffee said in an email to TOC.

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