The final presidential debate last night was more memorable for what wasn't said than what was. Billed as a debate on foreign policy, moderator Bob Schieffer concentrated his questions on Middle East policy, specifically Afghanistan and Iran. But the candidates managed a way to steer the conversation toward the domestic economy, the focus of the first two debates.
China was discussed, as expected, with Republican challenger Mitt Romney repeating his pledge to declare China a currency manipulator on "Day 1" if he wins the presidency. Growing tensions between China and Japan wasn't mentioned by either Romney nor President Obama. Both China and Japan have laid claim to a group of islands in the China Sea, known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
"By far the most important point right now is that [the Chinese] are increasingly at direct odds with America's ally in the region, Japan, which no one bothered to mention," says Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group.
As a result of these tensions, Japanese auto sales to China fell 49% last month, Bremmer says, and if the situation escalates, the American Navy will be defending the Japanese. The U.S. and Japan are set to hold joint military exercises next month in Okinawa.
While Japan is more closely aligned with the U.S., it's important to remember that China and Japan are the two biggest holders of U.S. debt, owning $1.15 trillion and $1.12 trillion of U.S. Treasuries, respectively. Together they own 42% of the total U.S. debt held by major foreign countries.
Another key topic not mentioned in last night's debate was the European debt crisis. That crisis not only has implications for the U.S. financial system but the broader U.S. economy. The European Union is one biggest trading blocs for the U.S. In 2011, for example, Europeans bought three times more U.S. goods than the Chinese did. A weaker European Union means a decline in U.S. exports to Europe.
Libya was mentioned briefly in the debate but more as a segue into a discussion about other countries in the Mideast. Bremmer says Romney "punted" on the killings of the four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, by choosing not to engage President Obama on the issue, which has dominated much of the press coverage in recent weeks.
Bremmer says Obama won the debate with tighter talking points but didn't offer coherent policy points. Romney, adds Bremmer, "was all over the map...he struck me as someone who overprepared for the debate…but didn't have coherent strikes."
"We heard very little substance and a lot of agreement on most issues…China, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, even Iran," Bremmer notes.
Perhaps the most interesting moment of the night was when President Obama said the mandated defense cuts won't happen as scheduled. Bremmer says Democrats and Republicans have probably been talking about a deal to avoid the sequester but acknowledges, "You can't talk about what a deal will be until you know who wins the election."
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