U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Tuesday to complete a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade agreement even as the American leader acknowledged there is opposition in both countries.
"I know that the politics around trade can be hard in both our countries," Obama said at a White House news conference after the two held private talks. "But I know that Prime Minister Abe, like me, is deeply committed to getting this done and I'm confident we will."
Abe, whose state visit to the United States comes 70 years after the end of the two countries' bitter World War II conflict, called for the "early conclusion" of negotiations over the trade deal.
The two leaders did not announce any details about the remaining barriers to completing an agreement that would open up exports for both Japanese and American manufacturers, along with those in 10 other nations.
Trade deals spark controversy
The Pacific trade deal, and a companion one with European nations, has drawn opposition in the U.S. from labor unions and Democratic lawmakers who normally are allies with Obama, a Democrat. They contend it will cost many U.S. workers their jobs as corporations move their operations overseas in pursuit of cheaper labor costs.
Meanwhile, business-oriented Republicans in Congress who often oppose Obama on a wide range of issues generally support the pending trade agreements.
Obama said the trade bill would boost U.S. exporters and the country's labor market. "I'm confident we will end up getting the votes in Congress," he said.
Obama and Abe cited the friendship between the two countries, which the U.S. leader called an "indestructible partnership."
"Across seven decades our nations have become not just allies but true partners and friends," said Obama.
South China Sea
In the hour-long news conference in the sun-splashed White House Rose Garden, the two leaders touched on a variety of world issues. They voiced concern about China's activities in the South China Sea, where Beijing has built an airstrip and other structures on coral reefs.
Obama said the two countries "are united in our commitment to freedom of navigation, respect for international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion."
The two leaders said they are not opposed to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but Obama said that like other world funding organizations, its lending and other programs must be transparent and in line with good governance.
Responding to one question, Abe said he is "deeply pained" by Japan's sexual slavery of Asian women during World War II; but, he stopped short of a direct apology.
"I am deeply pained to think about the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking," said Abe.
The president welcomed the Japanese leader to the White House in a pomp-filled ceremony.
In his greeting, Obama said, "The United States has renewed our leadership in the Asia Pacific. Prime Minister Abe is leading Japan to a new role on the world stage. The foundation of both efforts is a strong U.S.-Japan alliance."
Abe described the U.S.-Japanese alliance as "more robust than ever" and said Tokyo would be at "the forefront with the U.S." in confronting global challenges.
Before their remarks, the two leaders reviewed U.S. troops and then shook hands with many of the hundreds of people gathered for the ceremony.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are hosting a state dinner Tuesday night for Abe and his wife, Akie, at which 300 guests are expected.
Ahead of the Washington meeting, Abe and other top Japanese officials met their U.S. counterparts in New York on Monday and agreed to tighten their defense alliance, a move widely seen as a response to China's growing power.
The revised guidelines help Japan play a larger part in international conflicts, allowing Tokyo to come to the defense of a third country and strengthening its role in missile defense, mine sweeping and ship inspections.
The U.S. and Japan last revised their defense guidelines 18 years ago. The update follows Japan's decision last year to reinterpret its pacifist constitution to allow for collective self-defense.
"Today we mark the establishment of Japan's capacity to defend not just its own territory, but also the United States and other partners, as needed," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a news conference.
Kerry also provided fresh assurances that a group of islands claimed by both China and Japan falls under the scope of a mutual defense treaty, meaning Washington is obliged to come to Tokyo's aid if the islands are attacked.
The East China Sea islands, known in Japan as Senkaku and in China as Diaoyu, have become a major irritant to China-Japan ties. China also has worsening territorial disputes with several other neighbors in the nearby South China Sea.
On Wednesday, the Japanese prime minister will have the rare honor of delivering a speech to both houses of the U.S. Congress.
Abe's address will be closely watched for any comments about Japan's wartime past.
Many Asian victims of Japanese imperial aggression have criticized Abe for what they see as his attempts to minimize his country's wartime atrocities.
During a speech Monday in New York, Abe spoke of his "deep remorse" over Japan's wartime aggression. But, as in previous remarks, he stopped short of the language used in landmark apologies made by his predecessors in 1995 and 2005.
During a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington on Monday, Abe said his heart was "filled with a solemn feeling" for the victims who died.
Obama and Abe also paid an unannounced visit to Washington's Lincoln Memorial, one of the city's iconic sites.
They paid a quiet tribute to President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated 150 years ago this month after a bitter and bloody Civil War.
A White House official called Monday's visit by the president and prime minister "an opportunity ... to spend time together one-on-one at a place of historical significance for the United States."