Obama welcomes Abe to White House with high ceremony

Jim Kuhnhenn
Associated Press


— President Barack Obama welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Tuesday with full pomp and ceremony on a bright, dewy morning at the White House, calling the state visit a "celebration of the ties of friendship" and praising the alliance the U.S. and Japan have built over time.

Military honors and a gun salute greeted the Japanese leader in a South lawn arrival ceremony. Trade and security issues top the agenda for Abe's visit, which was to be capped by a state dinner Tuesday evening with about 300 guests.

"Prime Minister Abe is leading Japan to a new role in the world stage," Obama said, setting the tone for their meeting.

Abe, speaking in Japanese, said he and Obama have been working to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance since they first met two years ago.

"Now our bilateral relationship is more robust than ever," he said.

The two leaders then huddled in the Oval Office for their meeting. They planned a joint news conference at 12 noon.

The visit aims to highlight the reconciliation between two nations once at war and to point the way toward expanded economic ties. The two countries are working toward a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would further open vast Asian and Pacific rim markets to U.S. exports.

Obama faces stiff resistance to the trade deal among members of his own political party.

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.

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.

Obama, who will play host to South Korean President Park Geun-hye later this year, has been thrust into the role of diplomatic broker between the two nations.

Last year in The Hague, Netherlands, Obama scored a small but significant coup by bringing together Park and Abe together for their first face-to-face meeting since they both took office more than a two years ago. Officials then said the discussions were focused on the security threat posed by North Korea, not on the source of Japan-South Korea friction.

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.

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 plans 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.

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.

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.

China on Tuesday reiterated its claim on the islands.

"No matter what anybody says or does, the fact won't change that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. "The Chinese government will firmly defend the country's territorial sovereignty and integrity."

In his interview Monday, 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."