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Asia

Kennedy faces tough issues in first diplomatic post

The daughter of assassinated US President John F. Kennedy will find defense and security issues, trade and the future of US military bases at the top of her agenda as Washington's new ambassador to Tokyo.

In the week that she has been in Japan, Caroline Kennedy, the United States' first female ambassador to Japan, has had a whirlwind introduction to the key issues that frame the bilateral relationship and the broader regional situation.

Kennedy had clearly been well briefed before her confirmation hearings in the Senate and subsequently received a ringing endorsement from the most powerful men and women in Washington, but some of these issues have been dragging on for decades while others appear almost intractable. It will be her job to make progress across the board, at the same time as re-emphasizing Washington's commitment to its closest ally in the Asia-Pacific region.

On Tuesday, November 19, Kennedy travelled in an elaborate horse-drawn carriage to present her credentials to Emperor Akihito at the imperial palace - cheered along the route by a large crowd of Japanese apparently delighted to host the daughter of the much-admired President Kennedy.

A Taiwan fishing boat (R) is blocked by a Japan Coast Guard (L) vessel near the disputed Diaoyu / Senkaku islands in the East China Sea on September 25, 2012 (Photo: SAM YEH/AFP/GettyImages)

Beijing lays claim to vast swathes of the South China Sea

The following day, she met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for another official introduction, with their general discussions touching on security in the region, given the rising influence of China and the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea, as well as the Trans-Pacific Pact, a multilateral US-led trade arrangement that is presently being debated.

"With your arrival in Tokyo, I look forward to further developing the relationship between Japan and the United States," Abe told Kennedy.

Top of the bilateral agenda

The ambassador later met Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida before getting down to examining the details of one of the most thorny problems she faced in a meeting on Thursday, November 21 with Itsunori Onodera, the Japanese defense minister.

Kennedy and Onodera used the meeting to reiterate their commitment to implementing the relocation of the functions of the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station, in Okinawa Prefecture, to an enlarged facility at the existing Camp Schwab, on the northeast coast of the island.

And while Tokyo and Washington have both decided that Futenma will be closed, local people and the prefectural and district governments are firmly opposed to the transfer to Camp Schwab.

The agreement on the relocation of the troops - as well as the related transfer of units in Okinawa to South Korea, Guam and Australia - was initially agreed in 2006 and should have been implemented by 2014. That deadline cannot now be achieved, although analysts here say the US would be wise not to try to force the issue.

"Ambassador Kennedy will have to keep a low profile for the first couple of months," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, adding that the timing is particularly sensitive, given that an election is scheduled for January for the mayor of the town that hosts Camp Schwab.

"If the US insists on getting involved before the election, it will be seen by local people as an intrusion into Okinawan affairs," Okumura said.

Increasing Chinese presence

The fate of the US bases feeds into the second issue on the joint Japan-US agenda: the growing threat to regional stability posed by an increasingly aggressive China.

"I watched her testimony before the Senate confirmation hearings and she gave the official US State Department position on the Senkaku Island issue," Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Japan's Fukui Prefectural University, told DW, referring to the islands in the East China Sea that Japan controls but Beijing claims sovereignty over.

"That position is that the islands are under the administration [of Japan] but the US has no position on the competing territorial claims," Professor Shimada said. "I would hope she takes a much stronger stance in this case as these islands are clearly Japanese territory."

Okumura, however, believes Ambassador Kennedy will be tasked with calming the recent tensions of the region.

"The US does not want Japan to get into any more trouble with China, particularly as we can see that the Chinese leaders have been toning down their hostility towards Japan recently and there have been fewer incursions into the waters around the islands.

"The private sector is reaching out to China on trade issues and that is important for maintaining stability, so I do not believe that issues between Japan and China will be a major concern in the near future," he said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

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Warmth could turn cold

That bilateral relationship is fraught with dangers, however, and any warmth could once again turn chilly at a single faux pas on either side.

Another area in which Washington is keen to see positive developments is Japan-South Korea ties. The conservative government in Seoul, headed by President Park Geun-hye, has been consistently critical of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's similarly right-wing government in Tokyo, causing friction.

The third area in which Ambassador Kennedy will be required to use her diplomatic skills is the TPP trade pact, with negotiations expected to be particularly tricky over the government support that is extended to Japanese rice farmers and the US auto industry's desire to keep Japanese cars at arms length from US consumers.

Ambassador Kennedy will play the role of facilitator, as opposed to the more hard-nosed approach that the negotiators from the US Trade Representative will take, Okumura suggested, although he expects that the talks will eventually bear fruit, given that both sides are keen to promote liberal, free-market values.

And despite her political leanings, even conservatives such as Professor Shimada say they are optimistic that Washington's new representative in Tokyo can help the relationship move forward.

"She is a liberal and I had hoped for someone a little more conservative, but it was not a bad choice by President [Barack] Obama to appoint a Kennedy," he admitted. "I hope that she will at least be better than her predecessor."