Published on Jan 23, 2015 in The Edge Review

How the new Republican US Congress plans to seize control of Obama’s Asia policy

After its first month focused on reversing domestic healthcare and social policies, the new Republican-majority US Congress is expected to start trying to stamp its mark on President Barack Obama’s initiatives abroad, including his “rebalancing” efforts in Asia.

After all, the 2016 presidential election campaign has already effectively started, with posturing and positioning aplenty. The mode is one of attack to showcase policy shortcomings of the Obama administration in an all-out effort to win the next presidency.

Square in Congress’ sights is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. This needs Senate approval to be ratified, and efforts to promote the passage of trade agreements on Capitol Hill take considerable legwork and leadership.

Most analysts believe that the Republican majority in Congress has improved the chances for the TPP, which has been bogged down in negotiations. Republicans have traditionally supported free trade, and the interests of their core constituency – corporate business – have been well represented in negotiations.

But hopes of inking the agreement during Obama’s presidency are overly optimistic. Any successful passage would require his administration’s cooperation, something not in the current Republican majority’s interest. It also assumes that Republicans will follow the free-trade line of the past, an assumption by no means valid given the isolationist Tea Party orientation of many Republican members.

And given Obama’s lame-duck status, there is no guarantee that he would be able to deliver the Democrats a positive vote. Free trade does not sit well with the Democrats’ more protectionist base in an election season. The likely effect is that the TPP agreement will be kicked down the road until after the 2016 election.

Also among the first issues to be shelved will be the two other components of the Asia “pivot” announced by Obama in 2012, security and human rights.

Congress is divided over its China policy, especially the pro-business Republicans. Yet the mantras of “containment” and “the China threat” run deep.

When US elections draw close, nationalistic rhetoric and anti-China positions often emerge. China is doing little to contribute to a more cordial approach with its assertive actions in the South China Sea feeding into confrontation. Expect the Republican Congress to call for initiatives to further enhance a US security role in Asia.

Regarding human rights, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has long been prominent in criticising governance in Southeast Asia. High on his list has been Myanmar, as Congress has been resistant to the Obama administration’s rapprochement towards the junta.

Concerns over the treatment of Rohingya have mobilised the human rights community in Washington, putting pressure on the policy of engaging the current Thein Sein government before the 2015 polls. Also, the ban on Aung San Suu Kyi running for the presidency has not been well received.

The Republican majority will ratchet up pressure on the electoral process in the runup to polls, pushing the administration and Democratic presidential contenders such as Hillary Clinton to backpedal on their pro-engagement positions.

There will also be a momentum to question the rapprochement approach to other countries in Asia, notably Cambodia and Malaysia. Both effectively received a pass from the Obama administration on human rights issues, with acceptance of their seriously flawed polls in 2013 and muted criticism of ongoing arrests and crackdown on opposition figures.

Republicans will work to make Obama look inept in promoting US values, drawing greater attention to human rights issues from religious freedom to opposition attacks.

Two countries not under the same human rights microscope are Indonesia and Vietnam. These US “strategic partners” rank high on the US policy agenda. There is bipartisan commitment to deepening the bilateral relationship with Indonesia, with the election of President Joko Widodo seen as a victory for shared democratic values. The Republican majority will actively look for new collaborative opportunities.

Meanwhile, Vietnam and the US are celebrating the 20th anniversary of normalisation of relations. The pair have moved from enemies to partners, pushed closer recently by China’s actions in the South China Sea. There should be deliverables this year in areas such as investment cooperation and military sales.

The effect of a Republican majority, then, will be to put the Obama administration firmly on the defensive over its Asia policy. By stalling the TPP agreement – the economic cornerstone of the “pivot” – and moving more attention to security and human rights, the administration will be thrown off-balance.

Ironically, that may bring a greater balance into US policy as a whole.