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2014.11.18

GOP Congress an opportunity for Japan?

The article was originally posted on The Japan News on November 14, 2014

  • Yuki TATSUMI
  • Senior Research Fellow
    Yuki TATSUMI
  • [Expertise]
    Foreign Affairs and National Security

On Nov. 4, American voters spoke out. They expressed their immense frustration on the state of the union by handing a landslide victory to the Republican Party. At the time of this writing, the Republican Party has secured 243 seats in the House of Representatives and 52 seats in the Senate. This gives them a majority in both chambers of U.S. Congress. It also means that President Barack Obama, for better or for worse, has become a lame duck, with two years remaining in his second term.

Most postelection analyses, particularly those in Japan, focus intensely on the big election loss that the Democratic Party has suffered under Obama. There is more to this election result than just the sheer numbers, however.

The major factors that influenced this year's midterm election are the voters' anger and frustration about the state of the union and an overwhelming sense of anxiety and uncertainty not only for their own lives, but also for future generations. An exit poll showed that close to 70 percent of the voters felt either frustrated or angry about where the country was currently headed, and also thought the economy was still in poor shape. Over 72 percent were worried about another large-scale terrorist attack in the United States. Only 22 percent believed that their children would be better off than themselves.

During the six years of the Obama administration, the voters have not felt much of a change for the better that they expected. The economic recovery that the government claims has not been genuinely felt among the average American. Growing numbers of young people are overwhelmed by student loan debts and live with their parents even after they graduate from college. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act -- the one tangible legislative achievements by Obama -- has created more confusion than stability. The nation's financial woes have been worsening.

Amid all this, Congress has been as divided as ever -- so divided that it ultimately led to a government shutdown in October 2013. Such utter disregard of the American people by the political establishment in Washington has stirred anger and frustration among the voters, which they expressed on Election Day last week.

However, the voters' anger and frustration with the Obama administration and the Democrats do not mean they are embracing the Republicans. An exit poll last week revealed that voters have negative views of both Democrats and Republications, views that are even slightly more negative of the Republicans. Should the Republican members of Congress fail to leverage their congressional majority and remain obstructionist, they are sure to be punished at the polls in 2016 just as severely as the Democrats were last week. In short, despite the numbers that suggest a landslide victory for Republicans, there was no real winner in this year's midterm elections.

Regardless, the election results have given the Republicans a majority in both chambers of the U.S. Congress. There are obvious changes that will come out of this, particularly in the Senate. For example, the Republicans will assume the chairmanship of the Senate's committees and subcommittees. This could result in the Senate actively countering the Obama administration's policy on various domestic and foreign policy issues. Obama administration officials will be frequently requested to testify at congressional hearings.

Japan may find such anticipated changes helpful. For instance, Republican members of Congress tend to be more vocal about U.S. obligations and commitments to its allies around the world. They also tend to be more explicit about security concerns in regards to North Korea and China. If the Republican-controlled Congress pushes the Obama administration to be more forthcoming about its concerns over China's behavior in the East and South China seas, or to back up its "Asia-Pacific rebalance" rhetoric through concrete actions, such as investing more in defense in the region, Tokyo will certainly welcome such a message from Washington.

At the same time, the Republican-controlled Congress also can complicate Japan's foreign and security policy choices. For instance, Republican members of Congress may be strong supporters for firm U.S. commitments to its allies around the world, but they also strongly believe that such cooperation must be a two-way street. As U.S. military involvement in the Middle East continues, the Republican-controlled Congress may push the Obama administration to demand that U.S. allies, including Japan, contribute more robustly to U.S. efforts.

Furthermore, the Republicans' uncompromising attitude toward such countries as Russia, China and North Korea are driven not only by practical security concerns, but also largely by their ideological disdain to the regimes in these countries. While the wariness of China may be helpful for Japan as it continues to counter China's attempt to impose a "new normal" in the East China Sea, Japan may find the Republican-controlled Congress less sympathetic to Japan's ongoing efforts to diplomatically engage with the governments in Moscow and Pyongyang.

The Republican-controlled Senate could make things difficult for the Japan-U.S. alliance on one particular issue. Sen. John McCain, who is expected to assume the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been a strong critic of building facilities in Guam for the U.S. Marine Corps as part of the deal related to the relocation of the Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture. He has been strongly critical of the Guam construction plan as a waste of tax dollars, and has tried to block funding for the facilities in the U.S. defense budget. Should the efforts to relocate Futenma to Henoko stall following the governor's election in Okinawa, the construction of the facilities in Guam, which needs to be closely coordinated with Futenma relocation process despite an agreement of the Japanese and U.S. governments in spring 2012 to "delink" these processes, may once again be subjected to close scrutiny by Congress.

In short, Republican control of the both chambers of U.S. Congress presents both challenges and opportunities for Japan. It is up to Japanese leaders and officials to maximize the postelection political landscape in Washington to optimize the opportunities it presents.

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