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Washington — President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared progress Tuesday in trade talks between their two nations, stopping short of announcing a breakthrough in negotiations that are central to a massive 12-nation trade deal that would open markets around the Pacific rim to U.S. exports.

Obama conceded the domestic obstacles both he and Abe face to concluding a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, but said the deal would be an integral component of his effort to increase U.S. influence in Asia and expand U.S. export markets.

“The politics around trade can be hard in both our countries,” Obama, who faces stiff resistance from members of his own party, said during a Rose Garden news conference with Abe. “It’s never fun passing a trade bill in this town.”

Referring to the trade barriers on vehicles that have been one of the main sticking points in the U.S-Japan trade talks, Obama said: “There are many Japanese cars in America, I want to see more American cars in Japan as well.”

Abe said he is eager to see “the early conclusion” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, adding that on outstanding issues over trade barriers “we welcome the fact that significant progress was made.”

Before completing the deal, however, Obama must win expanded negotiating authority from the U.S. Congress, a difficult task given opposition from liberals and labor unions who fear the loss of American jobs.

In one closely watched development, Abe sidestepped a question on whether he would apologize for the sexual enslavement of women by Japan’s army during World War II. Abe instead said he was “deeply pained” by the suffering of “comfort women.” He was using a euphemism for tens of thousands of Asian women who were forced to serve Japanese troops.

Obama and Abe also embraced revisions to U.S.-Japan defense guidelines that were announced Monday by foreign and defense ministers from both sides. The new rules boost Japan’s military capability amid growing Chinese assertiveness in disputed areas in the East and South China Sea. 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.

China’s economic and military footprint hung over the Abe visit. In the face of China’s rise, Obama has sought to display more U.S. economic and security might in the Asia-pacific region.

Obama rejected suggestions that trade and security deals present a threat to China.

He said the U.S. sees China as a booming potential market and partner for U.S. development efforts overseas, noting that hundreds of millions of Chinese have been pulled out of poverty in recent years. But he acknowledged “some real tensions” over China’s maritime claims.

“They feel that rather than resolve these issues through normal international dispute settlements, they are flexing their muscles,” he said. “We’ve said to China what we should say to any country in that circumstance: That’s the wrong way to go about it.”

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