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Will US midterm result affect Pacific policy?

While the Democrats’ unexpectedly strong performance in November 8 midterm elections allowed them to retain control of the U.S.

TED GOVER | New Delhi |

While the Democrats’ unexpectedly strong performance in November 8 midterm elections allowed them to retain control of the U.S. Senate, the Republican party eked out a slim majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, returning Washington to its usual makeup-divided government.

These developments have taken place as the world faces additional tensions with a progressively belligerent North Korea and as Xi Jinping consolidates power upon being awarded an unprecedented third term as president at October’s 20th Party Congress.

As Kim and Xi adopt increasingly aggressive foreign policies, the question arises, what do the new divided U.S. government and Republican control of the House of Representatives mean for America’s relations with South Korea?

Simply put, both Congressional Republicans and Democrats are pivoting to the Indo-Pacific to counter Pyongyang and Beijing, and they are looking to partner with Seoul, Tokyo, and other like-minded partners in these endeavors.

Like their Democratic counterparts, Congressional Republicans are committed to America’s responsibilities under the U.S. Republic of Korea mutual defense treaty, the U.S.-Japan Security alliance, and to helping Taiwan defend itself.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats also recognize that threats to Taiwan’s security endanger South Korea and Japan and that America’s credibility will be ruined if it fails to support Taiwan in its time of need. The same is true regarding the Korean peninsula.

The new GOP-led House of Representatives will share the concerns of their Democrat colleagues about both Kim’s and Xi’s track records which have included increased repression at home as well as pressure campaigns against their neighbors.

Kim’s dozens of missile tests this year – a record high – have heightened pressures, as have his threats to use nuclear weapons against South Korea. Worsening matters, analysts believe that Kim may be planning North Korea’s seventh nuclear test.

Kim’s and Xi’s deepening relations with Russia following Putin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine is another complicating factor as recent reports indicate that North Korea is supplying Russia with weapons. Understandably, some policymakers in Seoul and elsewhere may be concerned by soon-to-be-U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s and Ohio Senator-elect J.D. Vance’s expressed skepticism of continued U.S. financial support for Ukraine.

Some may view Mr. McCarthy’s and Mr. Vance’s comments as an indication of Republicans adopting an isolationist bent which may portend a decline in U.S. support for South Korea, Japan, and possibly Taiwan. Yet, Congressional Republicans’ advocacy for restrictions on aid to Ukraine will not carry over to American commitments in the Pacific.

Republicans’ concerns over what they see as a generational threat coming from Beijing will keep them focused on U.S. security commitments to Seoul, Tokyo, and Taipei. This is in part reflected by how forthcoming House Republicans have been with their descriptions of the intense scrutiny they will devote to Xi’s Chinese Communist Party upon taking the majority in January 2023.

Part of this will involve House Republicans establishing a select committee to address the strategic concerns that Beijing poses. The committee will devote attention to sensitive supply chains, technology theft, human rights abuses, protection from Chinese cyber-attacks, and the CCP’s influence on American think tanks, universities, and media outlets. However, House Republicans’ concerns about the CCP will not come at the expense of America’s other regional security obligations.

Kim’s continued missile launches will concentrate the attention spans of Republicans on the threats posed by Pyongyang. The North’s menacing conduct will be another reason the GOP will advocate for increased defense spending, just as their Japanese counterparts have been calling for in recent months. Specifically, House Republicans are expected to support investments in building U.S. capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, namely, hypersonic weapons, missile defense, resupplying munitions stockpiles, enlarging the U.S. Navy as well as expanding shipbuilding and ship repair capacity.

Additionally, House Republicans will support continued U.S.-South Korea’s joint military exercises similar to November’s Vigilant Storm air drills. Elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, the growing U.S.-China rivalry will ensure House Republican advocacy for a larger U.S. military presence in the region and continued involvement with informal groupings such as The Quad, AUKUS, and Partners in the Blue Pacific.

Kim’s belligerence accompanied by Xi’s revisionist behavior bode ill for free peoples. As with their Democratic colleagues in the Senate, the new Republican House majority will work closely with South Korea and other friendly states to counter Pyongyang’s and Beijing’s aggression and attempts to change the region’s status quo.

(The writer is Associate Clinical Professor at Claremont Graduate University.)