How Will the Midterm Elections Impact Asia Policy?

"Obama and the 114th Congress will disagree on many issues. In the case of the president’s Asia policy, however, the new Congress is more likely to work to make it more robust..."

This week, President Obama heads to Asia following a stunning defeat for him and his Democratic Party in the midterm elections. Conventional wisdom has it that this electoral drubbing will leave the president with diminished influence abroad, as foreign interlocutors will see him as a soon-to-be lame duck without the backing of a now Republican Congress.

But the conventional wisdom can be wrong. Republican control of both the House and Senate could have a significant effect on Asia policy, especially if the president and new Congress strive for a collaborative approach through 2016.

First and foremost, the Republicans’ electoral win may open the door to real progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a central pillar of the president’s policy of pivoting to Asia. President Obama’s key multilateral trade initiative has gotten bogged down in difficult bilateral U.S.-Japan negotiations, due in part to the Democratic Senate’s refusal to grant the president trade-promotion authority, or TPA. TPA allows the president to negotiate a trade agreement without foreign partners having to worry about potential congressional revisions to the deal after the fact. With Harry Reid no longer standing in the way of TPA come January, Washington and Tokyo may finally find a way forward, making completion of the TPP in 2015 a possibility.

Second, with growing turmoil in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific, the president may be primed for a come-to-Jesus realization of the nature of America’s adversaries and the importance of the U.S. military to global stability.

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The new Congress will certainly hope so, will welcome and even facilitate such a shift and is likely to attempt to redress the president’s under-resourced defense strategy. In the case of Asia, the independent, nonpartisan National Defense Panel, which reviewed the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, called for “substantial investments in new technology and operational concepts, as well as more innovative approaches to basing, access, and building partner capacity”—and that is only for dealing with China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. On the whole, the panel found that the United States needed to dedicate much more in the way of resources to the Asia-Pacific:

Thus, we believe that strong U.S. maritime and air forces, including but not limited to Navy aircraft carriers, surface combatants, attack submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, unmanned systems both above and under the water, Marine amphibious groups, and Air Force unites with a broad range of capabilities, should be operating across maritime Asia on a more regular basis, demonstrating credible U.S. combat capabilities, reinforcing international norms like freedom of navigation, and reassuring U.S. allies and partners of our capability and our resolve.

Although the Senate Armed Services Committee, under likely new chairman John McCain, may be more concerned with the war against the Islamic State and reversing Army-size reductions, operations in the Middle East are stressing U.S. air and naval forces and highlight the strategic imperative for those forces’ ability to operate simultaneously in far-flung regions.

Third, Republican members of Congress have, typically, strongly favored closer U.S.-Taiwanese relations. The new Congress should, then, be a sight for Taipei’s sore eyes following six years of an administration with no discernible Taiwan policy. And while Congress’s legislative impact on Taiwan policy may be limited, it can wield influence via oversight. With Marco Rubio likely taking over chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, such efforts could receive an important boost. Look for increased pressure on the administration to revitalize defense ties with the island—perhaps by actively participating in Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program—and to work with Taipei to pave the way for its future entry into the TPP.

Fourth, the new Congress may be more vocal on issues of human rights and democracy in Asia. This could, in particular, affect Burma and Vietnam policy. Burma’s opening to the West and steps towards greater political liberalization are often hailed as a clear foreign-policy success for the president. Yet human-rights violations, regression in the protection of civil liberties, and potential democratic backsliding call that success into question. The Obama administration seems to be in wait-and-see mode ahead of Burma’s 2015 general elections, but a Republican Congress may pursue a more proactive approach. It could take legislative steps to write new sanctions, should the president hesitate to reinstitute those that are currently suspended.

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