US, Japan say alliance 'cornerstone' of Asia security

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States and Japan sought to reinvigorate their 70-year-old alliance in the face of China's ever-increasing clout on Tuesday, as President Barack Obama welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the White House.

Hailing the alliance as the "cornerstone of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region," the two countries vowed to counter new threats and increase military deterrence.

They pledged to forge a Trans-Pacific trade deal that would encompass 12 countries and 40 per cent of the world economy and back a dramatically more assertive security role for long-pacifist Japan.

"Today, the international order faces fresh challenges, ranging from violent extremism to cyber attacks," a joint statement said.

"State actions undermine respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity by attempting to unilaterally change the status quo by force or coercion pose challenges to the international order," the text said.

"Such threats put at risk much that we have built. We must and will adapt again, working in concert with other allies and partners."

The US and Japan agreed to a new set of defence cooperation guidelines that would "reinforce deterrence" by allowing Japanese forces to come to the aid of US forces and "enable Japan to expand its contributions to regional and global security."

It is a significant step for two countries that had been locked in a brutal war that ended with the first and only use of atomic bombs in combat history.

Amid Japan's territorial disputes with China, Russia and North Korea, the US reiterated its pledge to come to Japan's defence.

During the White House visit, Obama held Oval Office talks with Abe and offered a welcome normally reserved for royalty or heads of state, including a full arrival ceremony on the South Lawn and a luxurious state dinner on Tuesday evening.

On Monday, Obama took Abe on an unannounced tour of the Lincoln Memorial, riding together in Obama's armoured limousine - "the beast" - to underscore their personal ties.

In the Oval Office, Obama and Abe were expected to also touch on sensitive trade issues.

"If we don't write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region," Obama told the Wall Street Journal ahead of the meeting.

China has increasingly been making its economic clout felt, pushing hard for the creation of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to rival US-backed institutions.

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

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

Japan sees the authority as a prerequisite to conclude talks.

Even if progress is made, Obama has faced critics within his own party who believe the deal would allow American jobs to be shipped overseas.

Obama said the idea that he was "trying to just destroy the middle class or destroy our democracy is a little unrealistic. And they know it."

Trade 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, an eventual deal seems likely.