Amid tensions in Asia, Obama meets with Japanese PM

President Barack Obama is welcoming Japan's new prime minister to the White House to reinforce a core U.S. alliance at a time of high tension stoked by a Japan-China territorial dispute and a North Korean nuclear test.

Shinzo Abe is a nationalist and a keen advocate of stronger relations with Washington that have assumed more importance for Tokyo as it has locked horns in recent months with emerging power China over the control of unoccupied islands in the resource-rich seas between them.

Abe, who arrived Thursday afternoon and will leave early Saturday, has been anxious for the Oval Office meeting since he returned to power after a convincing election victory in December for his second stint as prime minister since he resigned for health reasons in 2007 after serving for one year.

The U.S. partnership with Japan, which hosts about 50,000 American forces, is an enduring one and a cornerstone of Washington's Asia policy, but establishing a personal rapport between leaders has been difficult. As Japan has struggled with its prolonged economic malaise, there's been a rotating door of prime ministers. Abe is the fifth since Obama took office.

Abe's market-pleasing moves to stimulate Japan's economy - dubbed `Abenomics' - have fueled hope of a recovery and are expected to be featured in a policy speech he will deliver at a Washington think tank Friday after his meeting and working lunch with Obama at the White House.

The U.S. will be gauging Tokyo's intent to join negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a region-wide free trade pact being pushed by Washington. Abe may give pointers but is widely expected to hold back from such a commitment, which is opposed by most of his party and Japan's small but politically powerful farming lobby, at least until after key elections in July for the upper house.

Joe Hinrichs, Ford Motor Co.'s president of the Americas, said that Abe should be told to open Japan's automobile markets, because only about 4 percent of cars sold there are made by foreign auto companies.

"We hope the U.S. government will send a clear message that any future trade policy with Japan must ensure a level playing field and not come at the expense of American workers," he said Thursday.

How long will China back a defiant N. Korea?

On the security issues roiling northeast Asia, the U.S. and Japan will show solidarity in the face of North Korea's recent long-range rocket launches and last week's nuclear test, and reiterate their support for the U.N. Security Council to agree upon tougher sanctions against Pyongyang. They could also discuss military cooperation and missile defense.

More delicate will be how Obama and Abe address Japan's dispute with China over the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands that flared after Tokyo nationalized some of them in September. China also claims the tiny islands, which they call Diaoyu. It has stepped up patrols into what Japan considers its territorial waters, heightening concern that could spark a conflict. The tensions highlight the rivalry between China, the world's second-largest economy, and Japan, which is the third.

Tokyo accused China last month of locking weapons-guiding radar on a Japanese destroyer and a helicopter, in what it viewed as a dangerous escalation. Beijing accused Tokyo of fabricating the reports to smear China.

Abe will seek a reaffirmation of U.S. treaty obligations to help Japan in the event of conflict - spelled out in clear terms last month by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said the U.S. opposes any unilateral actions seeking to undermine Japan's administration of the islands.

Obama will likely give that assurance but tread cautiously. The U.S. is at odds with China on many issues - Washington's growing concern over cybertheft is a clear example. But the U.S. wants to avoid a conflict in the region and is wary of alienating Beijing, whose support is needed to pressure North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs that potentially threaten the U.S.

Danny Russel, National Security Council senior director for Asia, said Obama will find it useful to get an update on the high-level contacts between Tokyo and Beijing.

"The president's focus, as you can imagine, is on the importance of managing these issues in a diplomatic way that lowers the tensions," Russel said in a briefing to reporters ahead of Abe's visit.

"Obama will not want to contribute to the impression that already exists in China that the U.S. and Japan are ganging up against China," said Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.