By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for White House talks on Tuesday to showcase newly strengthened defense ties and advance a long-delayed Pacific trade deal as the two allies seek to counter China’s rising influence in Asia.
But as Abe tries to focus on the future amid the ceremonial pomp of his official visit to Washington, the conservative leader is expected to be dogged by critics' questions about how he is handling his country’s wartime past.
The official agenda is intended to highlight how times have changed for the former bitter World War Two enemies – even though some sticking points remain.
When Obama and Abe meet, they will put their stamp on new guidelines for defense cooperation, a sign of Japan’s readiness to take more responsibility for its security.
But while Japan moves to loosen restrictions on its post- war pacifist constitution, details are still to be worked out on how much leeway its military will have to assist U.S. forces beyond Japanese waters, especially in the tense South China Sea.
Though the White House has dashed hopes for a breakthrough trade deal during Abe’s visit, Obama’s aides say the leaders will take stock of “substantial progress” in negotiations and chart a path toward a major 12-nation Pacific trade pact.
Abe, who on Wednesday will be the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, will face the challenge of helping Obama convince fellow Democrats who oppose the trade deal as bad for U.S. jobs.
"If we don't write the rules, China will write the rules," Obama told The Wall Street Journal on Monday.
A deal between economic power houses Japan and the United States is vital to clinching a Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, which would cover a third of world trade.
On the security front, worries have persisted in Tokyo that one day Washington may not come to Japan's defense if needed.
Secretary of State John Kerry told Japanese ministers on Monday that Washington’s "iron-clad" commitment covered all territories under Tokyo's administration, including tiny East China Sea islets that Japan disputes with Beijing.
Obama’s top Asia adviser, Evan Medeiros, said Obama would encourage a diplomatic solution with China in his talks with Abe but also reaffirm treaty commitments to help defend Japan.
Abe’s speech to Congress will be scrutinized for what he says about Japan's wartime past, still a sensitive issue for Asian neighbors, including China and U.S. ally South Korea, nearly 70 years after the end of World War Two.
Abe is under pressure from critics to erase concerns that he wants to whitewash Japan's role of wartime aggression. His conservative domestic allies feel fresh apologies are unneeded.
In Boston on Monday, Abe said “my heart aches” for women he said were the victims of “human trafficking” and he said he stood by previous Japanese leaders' apologies about the war.
His remarks came in response to a question about "comfort women," a Japanese euphemism for the thousands of Korean and other Asian women forced into prostitution at Japanese military brothels before and during World War Two.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Chizu Nomiyama)