Obama, Abe eye strategic trade deal at White House

Obama, Abe eye strategic trade deal at White House
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L)

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama will seek to encourage the emergence of a more assertive Japan and close in on a major Pacific trade deal when he hosts Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House Tuesday.

Abe will get treatment normally reserved for royalty or heads of state, including a 300-guest White House state dinner in his honour, underscoring the renewed relevance of an alliance forged in the ashes of World War II.

The Japanese premier lands in Washington buttressed by victory in local elections that were seen as a referendum on his administration.

The White House will be keen to capitalise on an emboldened Abe's desire to put Japan back at the centre of power in Asia, as China flexes its political and economic muscle.

Mindful of China's rising influence, the Obama administration launched a "pivot to Asia" strategy, aggressively courting several regional economic powers and nurturing a network of alliances.

The visit comes "in the context of our broader efforts to continue to rebalance the Asia-Pacific region," said top Obama foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes.

Abe has backed a bigger role for Japan's security forces, including a deal expected Monday that could allow personnel to come to the aid of US troops in the event of a skirmish or attack.

Japan's military was scrapped after the end of the war, and pacifism is enshrined in the country's constitution, which Abe has sought to reinterpret.

"We very much welcome the fact that Japan is looking to play a more constructive role in promoting peace and stability in the broader Asia-Pacific region," said Rhodes.

"We believe that that dovetails very nicely with the US rebalance." Part of that rebalance is securing a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that draws in 12 countries - including Japan and the United States - many of which are keen to counter Beijing's increasingly strong centripetal pull.

"The negotiations have been going on for some time," said Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, saying that Obama and Abe would hail the "major progress" seen.

The visit, he said, would be "epoch-making."

Push for trade deal

Both Tokyo and the White House had hoped that Obama would have authority from Congress to fast track a deal before Abe's visit, allowing a more definitive announcement on Tuesday.

But political wrangling on Capitol Hill means that may not come before May.

Japan sees the authority as a prerequisite to conclude talks.

Obama has faced critics within his own party who believe the deal would allow American jobs to be shipped overseas.

In the last week Obama has begun pushing back hard on that notion, insisting the deal would level the playing field for US workers.

"I understand why a lot of people are sceptical of trade deals. Past deals didn't always live up to the hype," he said in his latest weekly address to the nation.

"We have lessons to learn from the past - and we have learned them. But trying to stop a global economy at our shores isn't one of those lessons." Negotiators are still working on tough issues linked to automobiles and agriculture, but with Obama looking for a bipartisan trade victory and Abe keen to bolster his domestic economic reforms, a deal seems likely.

"There is a very, very strong will from both parties that we would like to reach an agreement," said ambassador Sasae.

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