POLICY ALERT: U.S. Presidential Debates through the Eyes of Rising Powers

POLICY ALERT: U.S. Presidential Debates through the Eyes of Rising Powers

The first U.S. presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump had over 80 million people tune in to watch in the United States. Over the last month, tens of millions more around the world followed the three presidential debates (September 26, October 9, and October 19) and the vice presidential debate (October 4). Though most of the debate time was spent with candidates arguing about the other’s scandals, rising powers have been watching to see whether Asia, Eurasia, and South America found their way onto the agenda. Two of our previous Policy Alerts covered how rising powers witnessed the Democratic and Republican conventions. In this Policy Alert, we explore commentary from China, Russia, India, Brazil, Japan, and South Korea on the U.S. presidential debates as the November 8 election date approaches.

CHINA

China found itself as the focus of discussion at several of the debates. For example, China Daily reported the second debate saw Clinton accuse Beijing of orchestrating an “illegal dumping” of cheap steel in the United States and that “Trump is buying it to build things.” Being the center of debate is not a position that many commentators in China appreciated.

  • Pushing back against claims by Trump and Clinton that China was manipulating its currency, China Daily ran an entire story quoting a “top U.S. economist” who disagreed with that view.
  • Global Times argued Trump’s “particularly arrogant” comments about China has “spread the mentality that the U.S. has suffered losses from its relations with China,” a view that “poses potential threats to global stability.”
  • China Daily noted that neither of the vice presidential candidates – Senator Tim Kaine nor Governor Mike Pence – took “radical positions regarding China” when they were governors or congressmen, but they have shifted their views once they joined their respective tickets.
  • After the third debate, China Daily’s reporting pushed back on Clinton’s criticisms of women’s rights in China and accusation of dumping cheap steel on the market.
  • One light-hearted way some Chinese netizens (an avid internet user) responded to criticisms of their country was by posting joking images of the town hall debate on China’s social media platforms like Weibo making it appear Clinton and Trump were engaged in a musical duet.

The Chinese government tried to block access to online streams of the U.S. presidential debates. As a result, commentary in China mostly came from the official press, which addressed the issues (or lack thereof) discussed at the events, how the debates reflect poorly on American style democracy, and the future of U.S. politics after the election.

  • After the first debate, Xinhua reported neither candidate did enough to convince undecided U.S. voters to move into their camp. In China, however, views on the candidates appear to have shifted by some measures. Last May, an online survey by Global Times reported 83 percent of Chinese respondents thought Trump would win the election. However, after the first debate, a poll on Weibo said Clinton won the debate by a score of 48 percent to 29 percent. In fact, Global Times was censured by the Chinese government for its editorializing on Trump.
  • Zhang Guoxi, Ph.D. candidate at Beijing Foreign Studies University, characterized the first debate as an “international spectacle” and a “spectator sport” highlighting the “troubling state of U.S. politics” divided against itself.
  • Zhang Zhixin of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations said the Trump’s campaign and his debate approach has “irreversibly damaged U.S. democracy” but also “highlighted the inconvenient truth” of discrimination, bias, and economic disparities in the United States. This view was seconded by Charhar Institute researcher Zhao Minghao.
  • The People’s Daily declared the personal attacks at the debates and other election chaos “exposes [a] flawed political system” and that it was time for America to “take a close, honest look at its arrogant democracy.” Global Times and Guancha.cn agreed.
  • Global Times wrote the “ugly unity” of the U.S. media’s debate coverage went overly negative against Trump. The paper felt China is treated just as unfairly by a U.S. press who ignores China’s progress on human rights.
  • Following the second debate, Xinhua’s commentary centered on the “bad blood” between the debaters. Shenzhen News said that divided “Americans are still torn” on who won the town hall. Beijing News said the debates have “left many Americans with a grim outlook on the future of their country.”
  • Chinese social media was enamored of the final debate moderatorFox News’ Chris Wallace, for being the son of Mike Wallace, a “tough interrogator” famous for conducting popular interviews with then Chinese president Jiang Zemin in the early 2000s.
  • Ed Zhang, editor-at-large at China Daily, worried that the only thing the candidates seem to agree on is to “backpedal” on free trade, a “setback for globalization” that will hurt Chinese citizens.
  • Trump is winning the “massive endorsement from the middle and lower classes” while facing resistance from the elites, remarked Global Times. Whatever the result on November 8, the paper foresaw the “rebellion” from his supporters “against the elites will not die down.”

INDIA

In the lead up to the first debate, Deepalakshmi K. compiled for The Hindu collection of the biggest moments in past U.S. presidential debates broadcasted on television and their importance in elections. When the first debate was over, commentators in India had a lot to say.

  • Ashok Malik, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, set the stage for the first debate with a discussion on why “Trump voters are unwilling to trade with Asia [and India], but willing to go to war to defend it.” The answer: “the impulses of the Republican/Trump backer identify the same villain – China.”
  • The Hindu felt that while the first debate “lived up to the hype,” Trump’s very presence on the debate stage “hints at continuing nationwide disenchantment over political dysfunction in Washington.”
  • The Hindu journalist Varghese K. George thought Trump’s emphasis in the debates on the need to fight “radical Islam” align him closely with the Indian government’s recent “surgical strikes” against terrorist groups in Pakistan.
  • Hindustan Times said the exchange between the candidates “revealed that only one, Hillary Clinton, is genuinely presidential” with her showing a strong grasp of policy details and an “embarrassing” lead over Trump on foreign policy matters.

The VP debate was held on October 4, but most of the commentary in India centered on the second and third Clinton-Trump debates.

RUSSIA

There is deep tension between Washington and Moscow after their disagreements over Syria and Ukraine and after the White House accused Russia of trying to influence American election through the hacking of Clinton campaign emails and the Democratic National Committee. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Clinton and the White House of using “scaremongering” to manipulate the American electorate. According to Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, although the Kremlin does not watch the race “with bated breath,” it remains attentive to the candidates’ statements.

Trump’s admiration for Putin did not go unnoticed by the Russian press. Overall, there seemed to be a more pro-Trump sentiment in the Russian newspapers.

  • According to Nikolai Shevchenko of Russia Beyond the Headlines, “overall, Russian media downplayed the candidates’ rare references to Russia during the debate, with only few publications highlighting Clinton’s ‘confrontational’ attitude to Moscow.”
  • Shevchenko also reported that while some media organizations questioned the objectivity of the CNN poll naming Clinton the winner of the first debate, “most Russian mass media outlets concluded” she beat her Republican opponent.
  • A report in Sputnik stated “the pro-Clinton media sources have even gone so far as to dub Trump and Putin ‘soul-mates.'” It continued that Clinton is “playing the Russia card to win the hearts and minds of American voters and demonize her opponent.”
  • Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russian ultra-nationalist ally of President Vladimir Putin, said “Americans voting for a president on Nov. 8 must realize that they are voting for peace on Planet Earth if they vote for Trump. But if they vote for Hillary it’s war. It will be a short movie. There will be Hiroshimas and Nagasakis everywhere.”
  • At the third debate, Kommersant reported on the candidates’ debating whether Trump was a puppet of Russia and how Clinton’s idea for a no fly zone in Syria might lead to an accident with the Russian air force.
  • After the third and final debate wrapped up, RT declared that it was “thankfully the last one because it can’t get much worse.”

BRAZIL

The Brazilian press continues to report on the elections and the debates, including stories that directly involve Brazilians who support or oppose Trump. Much of the reporting has centered on Trump’s bombast and most recent suggestions that the elections are “rigged.” In the past, the Brazilian media have often framed stories of U.S. presidential elections around the question of which candidate would be better for Brazil. This year the media has touched on this issue, but continues to focus on the tension between the two candidates and the provocative nature of Trump’s statements on immigrants, Clinton’s fitness for office, and the legitimacy of the elections themselves.

  • Globo’s report reviewed the structure and rules of the three United States presidential debates and concluded that the most polemical issues were Trump’s questioning of the legitimacy of the elections and Clinton’s private e-mails.
  • EBC Agencia Brasil reported on the observable tension between the two candidates during their last presidential debate in Las Vegas and led with the accusation made by Hillary Clinton that Trump would be a puppet of Putin. The report focused on Trump’s promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and his claim that the presidential election is “rigged” despite the moderator’s efforts to caution the candidate against making such a provocative claim.
  • Terra point to the policy differences explored in the last debate and contrasted the candidates’ personal perspectives on issues ranging from the Islamic State to Women’s rights. Following the U.S. press, Terra reported on Trump’s provocative declaration that he would reserve judgment on the legitimacy of the elections themselves.
  • Duda Teixeira of Veja published a story that evaluates the two nominees in relation to Brazilian interests. The story is largely based on an interview with John Hudak of The Brookings Institution who claims that Clinton would likely be a much more dynamic policymaker that her opponent, based on her prior experience and time in the White House as First Lady. The report quotes Hudak’s suggestion that Clinton would maintain better relations with Brazil and that if a Trump presidency followed the nominee’s rhetoric then relations with Brazil would likely worsen.
  • Veja also reported that “Juntos para Brasil” organized a pro-Trump rally in São Paulo with over 500 people. According to group, Trump represents nationalism and patriotism and will work to save capitalism from the socialists and communists that are protected by the Democratic Party. The event also associated Hillary Clinton as the North American version of the recently impeached Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.  

JAPAN

Japanese press has deemed the 2016 presidential debates as abnormal and potentially an ample alarm for Japanese leaders, primarily due to Trump’s candidacy.

  • The Japan Times reported “the Japanese government was slower to take Trump seriously. It was not until March that Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced he instructed his Foreign Ministry to look into Trump’s policies.”
  • After the first debate, Mainichi said “it is hard to say that important issues such as the Syrian civil war, counterterrorism measures and the South China Sea conflict were given sufficient discussion during the debate.”
  • The Japan Times lamented that Trump diminishes “our partnership” to nothing more than a business transaction. However, the editorial praised Clinton’s reassurance to the U.S. allies as something “the world expects from the U.S. president.”
  • Nikkei Asian Review expressed concern over the Republican and Democratic nominees’ apparent unfavorable stance at the debates on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and warned that turning back on TPP wouldn’t be good for the United States because it “stands to gain more than it loses from the progress of free trade.”
  • After recounting tabloid-like details of the current campaign, such as the leaked videos of Trump and how he held a press conference before the second debate with women who accused his opponent’s husband victimizing them, Mainichi remarked Trump’s “transgression of lowering the quality of the presidential election to this level is serious indeed.” The Japan Times said of Trump’s claims of rigged election, “it is hard to imagine a statement more corrosive for U.S. democracy.”
  • After the final row, The Japan Times wrote “in the end, the third debate did not offer much solace to Tokyo in terms of the future of the 12-nation free trade framework [TPP], as Clinton rejected it in the strongest terms.”

SOUTH KOREA

As in the Japanese media, Trump’s accusations about other countries getting a “free ride” on national security was a central issue in the South Korean press. As can be expected, the candidate’s policy toward North Korea was also a highly cited issue.

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