WASHINGTON -- For the last two decades, Japan's stagnant economy has taken a back seat to China's explosive growth. But the economic agenda for the U.S. and Japan is heating up, presenting new opportunities for the U.S. and trade frictions reminiscent of the 1980s.
In White House discussions Friday, President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took up a range of security concerns, pledging solidarity in responding strongly to nuclear provocations from North Korea. Abe also assured Obama that Japan would "act calmly" in its standoff with China over islands in the East China Sea, even as he made strong public remarks later about Japan's claims to the Senkaku islets.
But their minds were largely focused on one thing: getting their economies growing more rapidly.
Obama would like to see Japan join the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia and seven other countries in negotiations for an Asia-Pacific free-trade agreement. The administration sees the pact as an important part of its "pivot to Asia" to secure American strength in an increasingly wealthy region of the world, where China's influence has grown.
But the American auto sector and Japanese farmers, important constituents for Obama and Abe, have balked at Japan entering negotiations that could expose their industries to greater foreign competition.
On Friday, the U.S. and Japan issued a carefully worded statement suggesting that although all goods would be on the table in the trade talks should Japan join, there could still be a deal in which each side protected its most sensitive sectors.
"The two governments confirm that, as the final outcome will be determined during the negotiations, it is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations," the statement said, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
For Abe, who took office in December for a second time as prime minister, his meetings in Washington were aimed at promoting his own economic program. The Japanese have dubbed his plan "Abenomics" -- an effort to break out of a devastating deflationary period with fiscal and monetary stimulus and other efforts.
"I am back, and so shall Japan be," Abe said Friday afternoon in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Abe, 58, who studied political science briefly at the University of Southern California and delivered his speech in English, said in a news conference afterward that he hoped Japan could decide quickly about entering the talks.