After many months of anticipation, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy finally arrived in Australia on 22 July 2022. Stepping off her plane and into the media frenzy swirling since before she was even officially nominated, she didn’t even make it to Canberra before holding her first press conference as ambassador. With media coverage of seemingly innocuous issues like her winter jacket and her attendance at a literary event, the Biden administration’s appointment of the daughter of US president John F. Kennedy has already garnered more attention than any of her predecessors. Beyond the media spotlight, her reception in Canberra befitted her status, meeting with Australia’s prime minister, foreign minister and defence minister and a newsworthy number of other political, cultural and business leaders, within mere days of her arrival.
The historical echoes and significance of Kennedy’s arrival are undeniable. In early August, she travelled to the Solomon Islands to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal and celebrate the Solomon Islanders and Australians who saved her father’s life while he was fighting there in 1943. The rescue led to President Kennedy’s pledge 20 years later to become the first US president to visit Australia, which he was ultimately unable to fulfil before his tragic assassination in November 1963.
Caroline Kennedy’s appointment gives Australia the rare opportunity to be the setting of the next chapter of America’s most storied political dynasty. But as strategic competition in the region intensifies, Ambassador Kennedy’s arrival is also an appropriate time to consider what transpired during her time in Tokyo, what has shifted in the region since she left her posting there, and what can be expected of her time in Canberra.
What happened during Kennedy's ambassadorial appointment in the region
While having a US ambassador with celebrity status may feel novel to Australians, Caroline Kennedy is by no means a novice to diplomacy. As a former US ambassador to Japan from 2013 to 2017, this is the second time Kennedy finds herself as US ambassador to a close Indo-Pacific ally which recently underwent a sea change in its foreign policy, particularly around China. Moreover, the dynamics Tokyo faced during Kennedy’s time as US ambassador to Japan may show historical echoes that are stronger and more illuminating for Australia than those related to her family.
After a ratcheting up of Sino-Japanese tensions that resulted in China blocking exports of rare earth minerals to Japan in 2010, Japanese public opinion on China began to shift. Between 2009 and 2011, 61 to 69 per cent of Japanese viewed China unfavourably. By the time Ambassador Kennedy arrived in 2013 – amid heightened Sino-Japanese tensions over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea – that number reached 93 per cent. In 2022, just under a decade later, Japanese views on China remain largely unchanged, with 86 per cent of Japanese viewing China unfavourably.
The seismic shift in views coincided with a commensurate shift in Tokyo’s policies. For much of the post-war period, Washington valued its alliance with Tokyo but still found many of Tokyo’s policies and actions frustrating. Those Washington found most vexing included the use of Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution as an excuse for refusing to share the burden for regional security obligations; Tokyo’s fiercely protectionist approach to international trade; and the way Japanese politicians often appeared insensitive to regional historical sensitivities around Japan’s actions in the Second World War.
Yet by the time Ambassador Kennedy departed Tokyo in January 2017, Japan’s trade, security diplomacy and strategic outlook had undergone a dramatic transformation.
On trade, Tokyo not only accepted the Obama administration’s regional trade efforts in the form of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe helped garner regional support for it. More astoundingly, after the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2017, Abe took on leadership of TPP and other regional trade efforts that bolstered a rules-based order despite the lack of US participation.
On diplomacy, President Obama – with the “relentless” support of Ambassador Kennedy – became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, while Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to address a Joint Session of Congress and the first in more than half a century to visit Pearl Harbor.
On security, Abe’s overhaul of Japan’s security apparatus allowed Japan’s participation in military operations with the United States and other partners in regional contingencies beyond the direct defence of Japan. The overhaul resulted in Tokyo increasingly rejecting both limits on defence spending and its previously pacifistic policies.
These transformations were integral to the implementation of a new strategic vision that took the form of Tokyo’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy in 2016. A grand strategy founded upon working with allies and partners to confront China’s hegemonic ambitions in the region, this vision was such a compelling concept that both the Trump and Biden administrations, as well as US allies like Australia, embraced it for themselves. By 2019, the Lowy Institute went so far as to declare Japan “the leader of the liberal order in Asia”.
By definition, ambassadors are the senior most representative of a country and are charged with implementing their home country’s policies – not legislating them; so it is not an easy task to point to the precise impact of Caroline Kennedy’s tenure in Tokyo. But judging by the positive reviews of her work by those in the United States and Japan, Caroline Kennedy’s impact on US-Japanese relations was significant. Despite dealing with ideologically opposed governments – she represented a Democratic White House to a Liberal Democratic government in Tokyo traditionally more aligned with Republicans – governments in both Washington and Tokyo agreed that Kennedy forged deeper bilateral ties. She is widely regarded to have played a central role in securing President Obama's historic visit to Hiroshima and gained such a high level of trust with Prime Minister Abe that he shared early drafts of the speech he gave marking 70 years since the end of the Second World War. According to Daniel R. Russel, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the time, Kennedy “transformed herself from a celebrity into an influential public figure and statesman who became trusted, respected, liked and listened to.” Ambassador Kennedy’s efforts in Tokyo ultimately resulted in her receiving the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, the highest Japanese honour awarded to foreigners. While correlation is not causation, there is no doubt Kennedy’s role was critical in supporting the transformation Japan underwent during her time as ambassador.
Regional tailwinds ahead of Kennedy's arrival in Australia
Australian views of China have undergone a similar shift to Japan, albeit nearly a decade later. Following a series of Australian government decisions that included calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic; criticism of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang; new legislation restricting foreign interference widely perceived to be targeting China; and a refusal to allow Huawei to build Australia’s 5G infrastructure, Beijing retaliated with unprecedented economic coercion. These tariffs and non-tariff barriers on Australian exports – ranging from beef and barley to wine and coal – are estimated to have cost Australia more than AU$5 billion from July 2020 to February 2021 alone. That year, 57 per cent of Australians viewed China unfavourably. Three years later, and only a few months before Ambassador Kennedy’s arrival to Sydney airport, this number stood at 86 per cent.
The shift in Canberra’s policies within the same timeframe is no less remarkable. While Australian federal policies prior to China’s economic coercion were increasingly overt, Canberra’s policies toward Beijing have only become more direct since then. In the three years since Beijing’s economic coercion of Australia began, the Australian Government doubled down on its US alliance and defence strategy while expanding the scope of its participation in regional arrangements that do not include China – including embracing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) alongside the United States, India and Japan, as well as ever greater military cooperation with all three maritime nations. Australia also embraced Japan’s approach to bolstering economic diversification in the face of an unreliable trading partner.
But perhaps most critically, Australia’s sea change in its defence policy is most concisely captured in the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) security pact announced in September 2021, which will see Australia gain access to nuclear-powered submarines and other emerging technology along its pathway of up to four per cent of GDP spending on defence.
Just under a decade apart from each other, Japanese and Australian sentiment and government policies on China have followed similar hawkish trajectories in response to an increasingly aggressive Beijing. In 2013, Japan stood apart for its negative views of China and its ambitious vision of allies and partners working together to address China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. In 2022, much of the world – and especially Australia – has aligned themselves with much of Japan’s public opinion and policies of nearly a decade prior. Kennedy has entered a familiar environment – a US ally in the Indo-Pacific that has recently undergone a dramatic re-evaluation of its strategic landscape.
The tailwinds that Kennedy didn't have in Tokyo
When Ambassador Kennedy arrived in Tokyo in 2013, she found herself at the nexus of two regional strategic debates: one over the nature of the challenge China posed and another over the staying power of the United States in the region. These debates fuelled the Obama administration’s 2012 “Asia Pivot” – the articulation of US government policy highlighting the Indo-Pacific as the “priority theater” after a years’-long overemphasis on the Middle East. Despite the rhetorical shift, many in the Indo-Pacific, including the United States, questioned whether US actions would match its ambitions. While Tokyo had already decided its view of and strategy for dealing with China, key US officials, as well as US allies in the region, clearly lacked consensus as to what sort of a challenge China posed and what actions the United States and its regional allies should take in response. Some even questioned whether Shinzo Abe’s grand strategy of confronting China was too antagonistic a framework compared to a more generous model of “great power relations”.
At the start of Caroline Kennedy’s Australian ambassadorship in July 2022, public opinion and policy choices by Indo-Pacific nations indicated the debates of 2013 had shifted dramatically. There appear record-high levels of consensus about China – globally, in the region, among key US allies and partners, and crucially, in Washington itself. And while Washington’s political system is ever more polarised, the consensus on the need to apply counter-pressure on Beijing and defend US values and interests in the Indo-Pacific has only increased. In many ways, Washington and Canberra are following public sentiment, as more than 80 per cent of Americans now view China unfavourably – practically identical to Australia’s 82 per cent. Less than two years after a Trump administration that often ignored or antagonised alliances and six years after an Obama administration that at times displayed ambivalence about confronting China, the Biden administration has made its intentions clear: it seeks to empower the force multiplier effect of US allies and partners in a strategic competition with China.
In case there was any question of the Biden administration embracing an alliance-centric Indo-Pacific policy, the Biden administration answered it by giving an ally access to the closely guarded technology behind nuclear-powered submarines for only the second time in US history, making historic commitments to, and cooperation with, the Quad, and increasing levels of diplomatic engagement and congressional appropriations for US commitments in the Indo-Pacific. Today, White House and congressional support for a muscular response to the China challenge and backing Indo-Pacific allies like Japan and Australia is unprecedented.
Support for the Biden administration’s more robust response to the China challenge is both proven and bolstered by the administration’s recent endeavours. The administration successfully enacted a number of domestic investments, including record-breaking legislation on clean energy and climate change, the largest domestic infrastructure investment in decades, industrial scale focus on domestic chip manufacturing and US-led tech innovation. Overseas, the administration successfully united the developed world in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, withdrew US troops from Afghanistan and killed top Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri. As a result of these accomplishments, the Biden administration is expected to now expand new efforts overseas. After all, both as a candidate and president, Joe Biden said he would do as much.
In returning to the Indo-Pacific, Ambassador Kennedy now enjoys a level of support – domestically, within the White House, and most importantly in the Indo-Pacific itself – for a more forward-leaning US policy in the Indo-Pacific that was nowhere near as robust when she came to Japan a decade ago. Nonetheless, Kennedy’s seminal experience in Japan – when Abe, fuelled by a dramatic shift in Japanese attitudes not dissimilar from Australia’s recent shift, provided a vision answering the many foundational questions facing Japan – allows her a level of uniquely relevant insights.
The challenges facing the Australian-US alliance today
Caroline Kennedy now represents the United States to Australia during the most consequential time of the two nations’ 70-year-old alliance. Fortunately for her, Australia, perhaps more so than any other US ally or partner, has only increased its strategic alignment with the United States across diverse administrations. Canberra arguably weathered the Trump administration better than any other US ally and yet still increased its confluence with the subsequent Biden administration. In fact, the level of Australia’s alignment with US policies in the region today is unparalleled. Kennedy now resides in the capital of the rare US ally who has not only dramatically increased defence spending — a longstanding albeit narrow measure of burden sharing by US allies — but perhaps more importantly, has also increased their alliance capabilities and threshold for risk. Australia is doing the level of burden sharing that US presidents dating back to Caroline Kennedy’s father have long sought from US allies.
The central challenge facing Ambassador Kennedy, the United States, Australia, and their allies and partners is no longer convincing stakeholders – including the White House – about the need for an alliance-centric strategy or increased risk threshold to address the rise of China. The central challenge is now developing a similar level of consensus on how to execute such an alliance-centric strategy amid an increased risk threshold. And on this front, the breadth and depth of such an agenda is immense, with much of Ambassador Kennedy’s work requiring skilful management of complex dynamics in both Canberra and Washington.
On trade, Ambassador Kennedy praised Australia’s resilience in the face of Chinese economic coercion in her confirmation hearing, saying the United States could learn from Australia’s response to China. Yet from an Australian perspective, the United States could do a lot more than simply learn from Australian resilience – it could address perhaps the loudest and most frequent criticism of US efforts in a region where China remains the top trading partner for most nations: lacking US economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific. By its own definition, the Biden administration’s recently launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) is not a free trade agreement. IPEF undoubtedly gives an opportunity to address key US concerns with 13 other nations on issues ranging from anti-corruption and climate change to digital trade and supply chains. Unfortunately, however, it is unlikely the United States will be able to win meaningful concessions on such challenges without an incentive in the form of market access to the United States.
As someone whose endorsements of Barack Obama in 2008 and Joe Biden in 2020 during the Democratic Party’s contentious presidential primaries were seen as particularly impactful, Ambassador Kennedy may be called on to use her considerable influence to win over the Party’s progressive wing that remains sceptical of the ability of conventional US trade agreements. Ambassador Kennedy will need to leverage the bipartisan rhetoric and ambition for supporting US allies like Australia to overcome the protectionist wings of both of America’s major political parties. Amid ever-increasing concerns of downward economic trajectory and critical supply chain concerns, the need for “friend shoring” with trusted allies like Australia has never been greater.
Caroline Kennedy’s expert handling of political sensitives and bureaucracies in both Washington and Tokyo, particularly around Second World War-era anniversary commemorations, ushered some of her crowning achievements during her time in Japan. Such diplomatic skills will be equally indispensable for complex political sensitivities in the Pacific, where strategic competition is more evident than ever.
Ambassador Kennedy’s August 2022 trip to the Solomon Islands saw her open a US embassy there for the first time in decades yet this only occurred after Honiara announced a new security partnership with China. With many of the Pacific Island diplomatic missions reporting to the US Embassy in Canberra, the US Ambassador to Australia has a unique capacity to draw Washington’s resources and attention to a once neglected area. Integral to US diplomacy in the Pacific will be US-Australian collaboration on addressing climate change – an issue that is personally important to Caroline Kennedy but is now existential to Pacific Island nations. Ambassador Kennedy will need to take advantage of the unique moment of harmony between the US and Australian government approaches to fighting climate change, particularly as it relates to the Pacific.
In addition to ever more critical Pacific and climate efforts, Ambassador Kennedy will also need to address the fact that people-to-people ties are all but impossible without access to visas, which are increasingly difficult for Australians to gain for the United States. In Sydney, which saw the US consulate closed for much of the last two years, the appointment wait time for a simple visitor visa is 343 days, while the wait is 300 days in Melbourne (wait times in Tokyo and Singapore are less than a month). Efforts to expand bilateral ties will remain incomplete without a reasonable level of access for the respective publics.
The announcement of the AUKUS partnership in September 2021 was a watershed moment in the Australia-US alliance, particularly in Australia’s security policy. Ambassador Kennedy is now entrusted with executing such extraordinary commitments across three nations, each with its own respective industrial and political dynamics. While there remains extensive focus on the submarines and Australia’s resulting capability gap before their acquisition, Ambassador Kennedy’s primary focus in this area will likely be helping Australia overcome American bureaucratic and legislative hurdles that prevent further defence cooperation, notably the ineffectual National Technology and Industrial Base Integration and the overly restrictive International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Australia cannot be the sort of ally that Washington has long wanted it to be unless Washington undergoes long-waited reforms.
Beyond the consequential time in the bilateral defence relationship, Canberra is still acclimating to its first change of government in nearly a decade while also undertaking its first major review of its strategic capabilities in an even longer time period. Kennedy’s role in facilitating cooperation on these complex matters – which touch upon some of the most sensitive security, industry and political challenges facing the United States and Australia – will be pivotal.
A key difference between Caroline Kennedy’s time in Tokyo and her new posting in Canberra is that Australia’s new Labor government is not undergoing a major re-evaluation of its strategic outlook. This is largely because the nation has already recently embraced a new strategic outlook. Indeed, Australia’s Defence Strategy Update released on 1 July 2020 – which has subsequently been embraced by Australia’s Labor government – made its strategic outlook clear: “Our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War, and trends including military modernisation, technological disruption and the risk of state-on-state conflict are further complicating our nation’s strategic circumstances.” Furthermore, “…it is the Government’s intent that Australia take greater responsibility for our own security. It is therefore essential that the ADF grow its self-reliant ability to deliver deterrent effects.”
To some, this strategy and its objectives to “deploy military power to shape Australia’s strategic environment, deter actions against our interests and, when required, respond with credible military force” – may have appeared overly ambitious back in 2020. Yet Canberra’s actions since then on issues ranging from AUKUS to redoubling regional deterrence efforts alongside partner nations like India and Japan confirm Australia’s bipartisan commitment to such a strategy. Unlike her experience in Japan, Ambassador Kennedy’s primary tasks in relation to Australia’s strategic outlook will be facilitating the implementation of such an ambitious strategy – not helping to overhaul it.
As Canberra continues to pursue its own vision for the region, it may ultimately seek Kennedy’s expertise in finding a similar pathway to Abe, who successfully maintained close ties with an unpredictable US president while simultaneously establishing a stable relationship with a more aggressive China. Similarly, Canberra may also seek the ambassador’s input in helping convince Washington that a stable US relationship with China need not be one without competition.
The impetus to act
Benefitting from more than a century of joint military operations across diverse regions, nearly two decades of a free trade agreement, extensive intelligence sharing within the Five Eyes Intelligence grouping, decades of annual bilateral meetings with the US Secretaries of State and Defense, and deepened coordination in multilateral and arrangements within the Quad and AUKUS, arguably no US ally is better suited to tackle these challenges than Australia. Yet such ties and lofty ambitions, along with now widely shared and increasingly solidified concerns about China’s role in the region, should not hide the fact that in many ways, the hard work for Australia, the United States and Ambassador Kennedy has only just begun.
Unfortunately, however, there are no easy fixes. Defining and implementing a complex agenda amongst diverse US allies and partners on issues in the military realm and beyond cannot be resolved with mere rhetoric and star power. Fortunately for Washington and Canberra, Ambassador Kennedy’s unique background and experience bolstering the US-Japan alliance shows she brought far more than that to Australia while it navigates new challenges and draws nearer to the United States than ever.