Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe headed to the White House Friday on a mission to send a strong signal to China, which has stepped up pressure on the conservative leader over a tense territorial row.
Two months after his right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party swept back into power, Abe was to hold his first meeting with President Barack Obama in hopes of showing the region that there is no daylight between the two allies.
Abe has moved to increase officially pacifist Japan's defense spending for the first time in more than a decade in a show of resolve toward China, whose vessels have increasingly neared contested islands in the East China Sea.
Ahead of his visit, Abe told The Washington Post that China's stance of "coercion and intimidation" would eventually hurt its investment climate and faulted China's schools for "teaching anti-Japanese sentiment."
Beijing fired back, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying officials were "shocked," and that "only Chinese people have the right to speak about whether China's political system and development strategy is suitable."
Abe's government was heartened last month when then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned China not to challenge Japan's control over the islands and said the area was protected under a US security treaty with Tokyo.
Obama's aides were cautious ahead of Abe's visit, stressing the need to calm tensions between the world's second and third largest economies over the islands known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu in Chinese.
"No one wants to allow tensions to fester or to escalate," said Danny Russel, Obama's top aide on Asia policy.
Obama "will welcome any and all constructive steps to engage diplomatically and to manage the maritime situation in a way that prevents the risk of miscalculation," Russel told reporters.
The United States and Japan also will look to present a common front in condemning North Korea, which on February 12 defiantly carried out its third nuclear test.
Abe, who was also prime minister from 2006-2007, is known for his outspoken views. While in the opposition in 2010, he said in a speech in Washington that China was pursuing a policy of "lebensraum," the term Adolf Hitler used to refer to the "living space" he sought for Nazi Germany.
Since returning to office, Abe has been more circumspect in expressing his views -- particularly on Japan's wartime history, a topic that remains an open wound in relations with South Korea and China.
South Korea on Friday voiced anger after Abe's government sent a low-ranking official to western Japan to take part in an annual rally that exerts Tokyo's claims to another set of sparsely populated islands controlled by Seoul.
The United States has been hoping that Japan and South Korea will find a way to repair relations, particularly with new leaders in the two US allies. South Korean president-elect Park Geun-Hye takes office Monday.
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."
Abe is also expected to speak to Obama about the prospect of Japan entering talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free trade pact that the United States hopes will be key to shaping the region's future.
The Liberal Democratic Party said during the election that it would only support entering talks if certain sectors are exempted.
But White House official Mike Froman said Thursday that any country in negotiations needed to put "everything on the table."
Abe's predecessor Yoshihiko Noda won praise in Washington by supporting the trade pact, but he ran into fierce opposition from Japan's powerful farmers, who fear that they would be crushed by foreign competition.