WASHINGTON – Eager to build on the U.S.-Japan alliance, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will work to strengthen economic ties further while confronting stiff resistance from the U.S. president's own political party to a massive new Pacific Rim trade deal.
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Trade is one of the top agenda items for Abe's state visit to the U.S. as the two countries work toward a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would further open vast Asian and Pacific rim markets to U.S. exports.
Abe's visit comes as Obama's negotiators work to complete the trade agreement, and as Obama seeks authority from Congress to put the deal, once completed, on a fast track to approval later this year. Obama is pressing for the trade agreement and the negotiating authority against mounting pressure from liberals and labor unions who fear trade agreements can cost American jobs.
The U.S. and Japan are the agreement's biggest participants and the talks between the two countries would go far in advancing the broader negotiations. But while Obama and Abe won't be ready to announce a trade breakthrough, officials on both sides say they will likely declare they have made considerable progress in closing remaining gaps. The toughest sticking points are U.S. tariffs on Japanese pickup trucks and barriers in Japan on certain U.S. agricultural products.
Ahead of Tuesday's meeting and the pomp and circumstance of a state visit, Obama took Abe to the Lincoln Memorial Monday afternoon. Obama played tour guide, leading the Japanese leader up the steps into the memorial where they examined the Gettysburg Address sketched into the marble walls.
Also on Monday, Japanese and U.S. foreign and defense ministers meeting in New York approved revisions to the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines. The new rules boost Japan's military capability amid growing Chinese assertiveness in disputed areas in the East and South China Sea claimed by Beijing. The changes, which strengthen Japan's role in missile defense, mine sweeping and ship inspections, are the first revisions in 18 years to the rules that govern U.S.-Japan defense cooperation.
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Indeed, China's economic and military footprint serves as a major backdrop for Abe's visit.
Obama has undertaken an effort to rebalance the U.S. role in Asia and has argued time and again that without a trade agreement with Asian countries, China will step into the breach.
"If we don't write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region," Obama said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "We will be shut out — American businesses, American agriculture. That will mean a loss of U.S. jobs."
Abe is sure to get a flavor of the opposition Obama confronts from Democrats and from the political left. He will address a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday, and a coalition of trade deal critics plan to place a giant Trojan Horse, symbolizing the fast-track authority Obama seeks, well within view of his motorcade.
Likewise, Republican supporters of the trade deal were applying pressure on Abe. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan urged Abe to stand up to the Japanese farms and auto lobbies in favor of more open trade.
Educated at the University of Southern California, Abe will be the first Japanese leader to address both houses of Congress. He intends to deliver his remarks in English.
Abe's visit comes on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and has already prompted demands that he use his trip to address the use of sex slaves by the Imperial Army during the war. The issue has been a major irritant with South Korea, which has demanded an apology from Abe.
Nothing seemed to underscore the reconciliation between the countries more than the agreement to boost the U.S.-Japan defense relationship, which would allow Japan to play a bigger role in global military operations with an eye on potential threats from China and North Korea.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the shift marks a historic transformation in the post-WWII relationship between Tokyo and Washington that recognizes the "evolving risks and dangers both in Asia-Pacific and across the globe."
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida agreed, saying "the security situation around Japan is becoming more harsh and difficult."
The revisions come with a renewed pledge of the U.S. position that the Senkaku Islands — a group of small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea — fall under Japanese administration and are within the scope of the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty. China also claims the islands, which Beijing calls Diaoyu.
In his interview Monday, however, Obama tried not to portray the U.S. as an antagonist to China but said, "We don't want China to use its size to muscle other countries in the region around rules that disadvantage us."
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.