US President Barack Obama to host Japan PM Shinzo Abe to discuss security, trade

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Barack Obama will host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House next month for talks expected to focus on their joint response to China's rising power and efforts to finalize a major Asia-Pacific trade pact.

Abe, who will spend eight days in the United States, will go to the White House on April 28 to discuss a range of economic and security issues as well as a formal state dinner, the White House said on Monday.

The two leaders will cover a number of global topics, "including progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Japan's expanding role in the alliance and climate change," it added, referring to a 12-nation trade pact still to be finalized.

The visit signals another step in the Obama administration's efforts to focus policies on the Asia-Pacific region. The talks are expected to focus on security cooperation in the face of growing Chinese assertiveness in Asia and Abe's moves to loosen the restraints Japan's pacifist postwar constitution.

The leaders' talks are expected to be preceded by a meeting of their foreign and defence ministers to finalize updated defence cooperation guidelines.

Abe's US trip will also include stops in Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Japanese media say Abe is eager to highlight his trip with an address to both houses of the US Congress, an honour never before afforded to a Japanese prime minister.

Any invitation is a matter for congressional leaders, and Abe cuts a controversial figure, given what critics see as his attempts to water down past statements about the behaviour of Japan's Imperial Army during World War II.

House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner's office did not comment last week on a Kyodo news agency report on Thursday, citing a US legislative source as saying that Abe would address a joint session of Congress, possibly on April 29.

An organisation for former U.S. prisoners of the Japanese and a Korean-American forum said last week that Abe should only be invited to address Congress if he acknowledges Japan's World War Two past.

Washington is keen to see Japan play a greater security role in Asia. The two countries are deepening already close defence ties with several deals for co-production and co-development of weapons systems.

Japan, for instance, is building a US$1 billion (S$1.37 billion) facility for final assembly of Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets, and will play a large role in the maintenance of the global fleet of those jets in Asia. The two countries are also co-developing the SM-3 IIA missile, a project led by Raytheon Co.

At the same time, Washington has stressed the need for Japan and its neighbours, including another U.S. treaty ally, South Korea, to bury historical animosities exacerbated by the war.

Abe's conservative agenda includes adopting a less apologetic tone toward the past and his planned statement for the 70th anniversary of the war's end in August will be closely watched by the United States, South Korea and China for any sign he is diluting past apologies.

South Korea has accused Japan of trying to "undermine" a 1993 apology to "comfort women" forced to work in Japanese wartime brothels, by conducting a review of it last year.

Abe has said he intends to uphold past government apologies over the war but it is unclear whether he will himself repeat the "heartfelt apology" contained in landmark 1995 remarks by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama.