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International relations

Japan eyes Washington scion Caroline Kennedy as link to Biden staff

Ex-ambassador has maintained friendship with Suga for years

Caroline Kennedy, who served as U.S. ambassador to Japan, could prove a valuable connection to President-elect Joe Biden's Democratic Party.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- When Yoshihide Suga, now Japan's prime minister, visited the U.S. in 2019, he was invited to the home of Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy.

The two got together for monthly dinners when she was the American ambassador to Japan in the Obama administration and Suga was chief cabinet secretary. They have kept in touch since she left the post.

Kennedy celebrated the reunion by serving a cake decorated with the Japanese characters for "Reiwa," the name of the new Imperial era that Suga famously unveiled last year.

Now, as Japan scrambles to forge ties with an incoming Joe Biden administration, Kennedy is seen playing a major role in connecting Team Suga with officials-in-waiting.

JFK's daughter belongs to one of America's most prominent political families and enjoys significant clout in Biden's Democratic Party. She reportedly offered to introduce Suga to him ahead of the election.

Suga will make a congratulatory call to the president-elect soon and aims to visit in February, not long after the inauguration.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, left, and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken meet with Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at the prime minister's office in Tokyo in October 2015. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. State Department)

Tokyo has historically found it difficult to get along with Democrats. But the expected return of the State Department to foreign-policy primacy -- as well as the likely appointment of familiar faces from Barack Obama's administration -- should help get the ball rolling at the working level.

Tokyo expects Tony Blinken, a deputy secretary of state under Obama and part of Biden's diplomatic brain trust, and Jake Sullivan, who served as national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden, to be named to important positions.

Some hope for a return of such familiar "Japan hands" as Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in Obama's first term, to serve as a bridge to the administration.

Michele Flournoy, the Department of Defense's top policy official during most of the first Obama administration, has been floated as a potential candidate to lead the department under Biden. Flournoy has visited Japan from time to time since leaving the post.

There is concern about Susan Rice, who served as ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser under Obama, receiving a major role as reported. Rice famously was sympathetic to Beijing's proposal of "a new model of major-power relations," which hints at the U.S. and China governing the world in a "G-2" type of arrangement.

"At this time, we basically do not expect major changes" in Washington's approach to China under Biden, as both Democrats and Republicans have staked out tough stances on the issue, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told a news conference Tuesday.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, left, looks to meet with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden early next year after the inauguration.

The Trump administration left key posts in the State Department vacant, and top foreign-policy officials left or were dismissed after feuding with the White House, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis. Mark Esper was ousted as defense secretary Monday, with just over two months left until Inauguration Day.

Biden has spent nearly half a century in national politics, as a senator and later as vice president, and reportedly has a strong team of national security advisers. All other things being equal, the transition to his administration is expected to run more smoothly than when Trump took office.

The State Department, in particular, is seen returning to the forefront of foreign policy. It "will be more central than in the Trump administration," said Mieko Nakabayashi, a Waseda University professor who is an expert in U.S. politics, adding that "it will be easier for [Japan's] Ministry of Foreign Affairs to communicate" with the department.

A similar transition is underway in Tokyo, with the Foreign Ministry gaining in prominence after the departure of Shinzo Abe, a practitioner of summit diplomacy, as prime minister.

In the legislature, lawmakers in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party have weaker ties with Democrats than with Republicans.

Tokyo's struggles to build relationships with Democrats are not a new problem.

After Obama took office in 2009, for example, then-Prime Minister Taro Aso was the first world leader invited to the White House. But the meeting proved to be all business, with none of the customary ceremonies or joint statements. Tokyo and Washington later clashed while scheduling Obama's post-reelection summit with Abe in 2013, with Japan arguing that the Americans had allotted too little time.

The situation was worse under the previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who took office in 1993 amid heightened trade tensions.

Then-Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa sent the head of the Foreign Ministry's North American Affairs Bureau to the U.S. before Clinton's inauguration. Yet when Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe went to Washington the following month to meet with Clinton, he still faced pressure to reduce Japan's trade surplus with America and open up its markets.

The strength of the bilateral alliance is the cornerstone of Tokyo's foreign policy and serves as clout when talking with other nations. An early summit alone, for all its symbolic significance, would not be enough to underscore the partnership unless Japan can lay the groundwork for substantive talks as well.

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