Japan PM seeks united line with Obama

Japan's new conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads Friday to the White House, where he hopes to show a firm, unified line to influence an assertive China and a defiant North Korea.

Abe arrived in Washington on Thursday at a time of growing tensions between Japan and China, which is seen as challenging Tokyo's control over strategic islands, and days after a nuclear test by Pyongyang.

Fresh from a convincing December election victory and with high approval ratings, Abe has taken small steps toward a harder Japanese stance including moving to step up military spending by the officially pacifist state.

Danny Russel, President Barack Obama's top adviser on Asia, said the United States wanted a diplomatic solution to ease tensions but also reiterated a veiled warning to China over contested islands in the East China Sea.

Obama "remains supportive of the peaceful efforts to find diplomatic resolution to outstanding issues of territorial claims," Russel told reporters on a conference call.

The president has also "been clear in the United States' opposition to coercive actions or unilateral steps that threaten the stability of the region," he said.

Abe's visit comes one month after then secretary of state Hillary Clinton stepped up the tone, warning Beijing not to challenge Japan's control over the islands known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese.

The remarks by Clinton, a forceful advocate for a greater US focus on Asia, triggered a reprimand from China but heartened Abe, who is serving as premier for the second time after a 2006-2007 tenure.

In an interview with The Washington Post ahead of his trip, Abe voiced hope that the US alliance -- and the presence of 47,000 American troops on Japanese soil under a security treaty -- would send a message to China.

"It is important for us to have them recognize that it is impossible to try to get their way by coercion or intimidation," Abe said.

China contests Japan's historical claims in the area and voiced anger after Tokyo nationalized the islands last year, a move Abe's predecessor said was meant to avert a more provocative proposal.

Officials said that the two leaders would also look to show a common front on North Korea, which carried out its third nuclear test on February 12 despite pressure from virtually all nations, including its main ally China.

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party swept out of power the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan, which initially had a rough relationship with Obama by pushing for the withdrawal of more US troops from crowded Okinawa island.

Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, predicted Obama would be forthright in public comments but talk privately to Abe about avoiding miscalculations that could send tensions soaring with China.

"This is less a visit about tangible deliverables, of which I expect there will be relatively few of prominence, and more about the symbolism of reinforcing the strength of the US-Japan alliance," he said.

Abe, who faces upper house elections in July, is likely to speak to Obama about whether Japan will join talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a US-backed free trade pact bitterly opposed by many Japanese farmers.

Obama's adviser on international economic affairs Michael Froman said that any nation that enters negotiations would be expected to put "everything on the table." During his campaign, Abe said that certain sectors should be exempt.

While out of power, Abe called for Japan to revise a 1993 apology to the World War II-era Japanese army's "comfort women" forced into sex. Abe has since played down historical issues, a source of friction with South Korea and China.

Russel said that Obama was aware of "very sensitive legacy issues from the last century and believes it's important to take steps to promote healing."

Two lawmakers from Obama's Democratic Party, Mike Honda and Steve Israel, said in a letter ahead of Abe's visit that a revision to Japan's apology would have "grave implications" for the alliance.