WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet on Tuesday, a major subtext of their discussions will be the world leader not in the room — Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China's rise underlies both the economic and security discussions that will highlight Abe's state visit to the White House and is at the heart of Obama's so-called U.S. rebalance to the Asia-pacific region.
Ahead of Tuesday's talks, Japanese and U.S. foreign and defense ministers approved revisions to the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines that 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.
The meeting also comes as attention heightens in the U.S. over a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement — a 12-nation deal to liberalize commerce around the Pacific rim. The U.S. and Japan are the biggest participants in the negotiations.
Welcoming his guest a day early, Obama took Abe to the Lincoln Memorial Monday afternoon. The president played tour guide, leading the Japanese leader up the steps into the memorial where they examined the Gettysburg Address sketched into the marble walls.
While Obama and Abe won't be ready to announce any trade breakthrough, officials on both sides say they will likely declare they have made considerable progress in closing remaining gaps remain over questions of tariffs in the U.S. on Japanese pickup trucks and barriers in Japan on certain U.S. agricultural products.
Time and again, Obama has pushed for the trade deal in the face of stiff opposition from his liberal base and labor union allies by arguing that without an 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."
The Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations also come as China is working to develop an international infrastructure bank for Asia to fill an estimated $8 trillion gap in infrastructure funding for the region over the next decade. Japan and the U.S., leading shareholders of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, have notably declined to participate citing concerns over the new bank's governance standards.
Abe's visit comes on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. 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.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the shift marks a historic transformation in the post-WWII relationship between Tokyo and Washington that recognizes the "evolving risks and dangers both in Asia-Pacific and across the globe."
"The world has changed much since 18 years ago," said Defense Secretary Ash Carter. "We face new threats, new domains, new geographies."
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida agreed, saying "the security situation around Japan is becoming more harsh and difficult."
Importantly for Tokyo, 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, and the dispute has been a major irritant in Japanese-Chinese relations.
In his interview Monday, however, 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."
For all the attention the Japan-U.S. reconciliation will get, the war is also still a source of friction for Japan. South Korea has demanded an apology from Abe over the use of sex slaves during the war when foreign women were forced to work in Japanese military brothels.
Pressed by a student Monday while he visited Harvard University, Abe, through a translator, said Japan is making "various efforts" to provide "realistic relief" to the victims, without elaborating.
"My heart aches when I think about the people that were victimized by human trafficking and who were subjected to immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description," he said.
Lee reported from New York. Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Matthew Pennington in Washington and Philip Marcelo in Boston contributed to this report.