Recently, a rather odd notion occurred to me: The result of the U.S. midterm elections will have a positive effect on Japanese national security. Let me explain why I think that is.
On November 4, the Republican Party enjoyed a massive victory in the U.S. midterm elections. The Republicans had complete victory in every race in the Senate, House and at the gubernatorial level. For the Democrats, you might call it a “landslide loss.”
The biggest political change these elections brought about was a shift in power in the Senate from the ruling Democratic Party to the opposition Republican Party. There is no doubt that Democratic President Obama’s falling popularity was behind this; the midterm elections often act as a sort of vote of confidence toward a sitting president.
So how is the Republican Party going to influence domestic and foreign policy after their big breakthrough? There are a number of predictions currently being discussed. In particular, the shift is expected to influence Trans-Pacific Partnership proceedings.
The prediction goes like this: In the U.S. Senate, there are a large number of Democratic senators trying to call “backsies” on the TPP, favoring a more protectionist approach. This has put the brakes on President Obama’s active endorsement of the partnership. In this new Congress, ruled by free trade-friendly Republicans, the president’s plans will be accelerated, and requests for Japan to open its markets will similarly become more forceful.
However, what is even more important for Japan to consider is the possibility that, with the GOP in power, policy toward China — as well as Japan — may change. This would be reflected in a complex, nuanced alteration of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and defense policy.
The Might of the U.S. Senate in National Security and Foreign Affairs
Ultimately, the Obama administration bears chief responsibility for the execution of policy in foreign affairs and national security. However, the U.S. Congress also plays a large role, particularly the Senate. The authority to decide on budgets like defense expenditure; the authority to approve diplomatic personnel and the influential voice that erupts as a result of that power; the various sorts of influence in foreign affairs and national security issues that arise from the authority to ratify treaties: The Senate’s power is considerable.
In the Senate, the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Armed Services deliberate respectively on the administration’s foreign and defense policies, and then vote and present the results. At the time of deliberation, the committee opens a public hearing focused on a particular policy theme, and even high-ranking administrative officials overseeing the formulation of the policies, like the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, are called on to express their opinions and are pelted with questions. The committee then comes to a resolution, which either results in the voicing of their support for or objection to a proposed policy of the administration. Finally, they make proposals for the contents of the corresponding budgetary measure. By this legislative process, it is possible to exert substantial influence on the administration’s policymaking.
Managing these Senate committees are a chair and vice chair, who are both selected from the majority party. Up until this point, the Democratic Party has held the majority, so criticism of President Obama has been relatively restrained. However, that state of affairs is about to be turned on its head; soon the GOP will have committee-related activities under its control.
For the Obama administration, these recent developments are already proving to be a grim prospect. Leaving aside Iraq and Afghanistan, by evading involvement in Egypt, Syria, the Ukraine, etc., President Obama has reduced America’s global power and precipitated a fall in its authority. At the same time, upheaval and chaos has spread throughout the world. Even the response to the radical Islamic organization, the Islamic State, has been too little, too late.
High-ranking Republican senators have been particularly vocal in their criticism of President Obama’s stance towards national security and foreign affairs: specifically, John McCain, who has been involved in the Committees on Foreign Relations and Armed Services; Bob Corker, Republican ranking member on the Committee on Foreign Relations; and Richard Burr, Republican ranking member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
To give an example, in determining a course of action against the Islamic State group, McCain and the others have been demanding the deployment of ground troops. They claim that the Obama administration’s attitude has been excessively negative, and the chaos spreading throughout the world is a result of that weakness.
Beginning in January 2015, when the committees are reformulated, Senator McCain is expected to become the head of the Committee on Armed Services, Corker, the Committee on Foreign Relations and Burr, the Committee on Intelligence. These three committees are perfectly poised to control national security and foreign affairs in the legislature. In other words, three of the most influential anti-Obama members of Congress have grabbed control of three very powerful committees.
From the Perspective of Three Senators Against Obama
Even in the case of policy toward China and Japan, these leading Republican senators have views that are almost completely at odds with the Obama administration.
Senator McCain has asserted that not only administrative, but also territorial rights over the Senkaku Islands clearly belong to Japan, concluding that China’s speech and conduct amount to illegal acts of aggression. McCain has criticized the Obama administration for making light of a powerful ally in its attitude toward Japan, pointing out that “in the face of Chinese aggression towards Japan — our most important ally — the Obama administration has put forward no semblance of criticism.”* Although Senator McCain is the Republican presidential nominee who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential race, he has been active in the Senate for many years, acting as an influential member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees.
Senator Corker has also sharply criticized China for its ambitious expansion of maritime influence and has demanded that the Obama administration provide firmer support in checking China’s behavior toward the Senkaku Islands. He has pointed out and objected to China’s permissive attitude toward North Korea’s possession of nuclear arms, and he has repeatedly advocated for the central importance of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, while offering high praise for the Abe administration’s alliance-strengthening measures. Corker has, until now, been the Republican ranking member on the Committee on Foreign Relations, but now that his party has taken the majority, he is certain to become committee chairman.
Burr, too, has consistently raised concerns about Chinese military expansion, while exhibiting doubt concerning China’s assertions of maritime dominion toward Japan and the Philippines. He has also expressed criticism of the Obama administration’s China policy in general. The Intelligence Committee, which Burr will soon head, is responsible for monitoring the activities of those governmental intelligence agencies that support foreign and security matters from the shadows.
There is one more Republican member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations worth watching. That member is Marco Rubio, currently held in anticipation as a “young hope” for the 2016 presidential Republican nomination.
As the ranking member of the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Committee on Foreign Relations, Rubio has determinedly taken up issues involving China and Japan. Just as Senator McCain has, Rubio has criticized Chinese maritime expansion, while declaring that the Senkaku Islands belong to Japan. Furthermore, Rubio has also declared that “China has been illegally invading Japanese territory in the areas surrounding the Senkaku islands,” demanding that the Obama administration take firm countermeasures in response.*
Praise for Prime Minister Abe’s Attitude
McCain, Corker and Rubio have all individually been invited to Japan and met with Prime Minister Abe at some point over the last year. At these times, all three criticized China’s behavior towards the Senkaku Islands as “unjust aggression.” At the same time, all three commended Prime Minister Abe for his stance on the matter.
Rubio, who has expressed interest in historically sensitive issues, has criticized Obama’s claim of “disappointment” in Prime Minister Abe’s visits to Yasukuni. He has stressed that how a nation mourns its dead is something for countries to decide individually and, in particular, that it is inappropriate for a head of state to publicly criticize the mourning practices of an ally.
It would seem likely that under the leadership of this new Senate Committee on Foreign Relations deliberating policy towards China and Japan, Japan’s position and importance as an ally will be more aggressively stressed to the Obama administration and Chinese authorities alike. Not even Obama’s administration can ignore such activity from the Senate. It’s plausible that the will of senate Republicans will remold the Obama administration’s policy, bit by bit.
The reinforcement provided by these U.S. senators must be very encouraging for Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. It would be appropriate to say that even China will not be able to ignore these Republican senators, who now represent the entirety of the United States.
* Editor's note: The original quotations, accurately translated, could not be verified.