Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (AP)
Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - When President Obama sits down on Friday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the conversation will focus primarily on trade and economic issues. But the two leaders will also dedicate plenty of time to two hot-button security issues.
Abe's visit to the White House comes as his country is gripped in a territorial dispute with China and days after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test despite stiff opposition from the USA and other allies.
On North Korea, Obama and Abe are more or less on the same page. Both quickly expressed support of new measures against Pyongyang by the U.N. Security Council after North Korea conducted its latest nuclear test on Feb. 12.
But on Tokyo and Beijing's ongoing dispute over disputed islands in the East China Sea (known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China), the Obama administration has cautioned both sides to show restraint. The islands, which are under administrative control of Japan, are also claimed by Taiwan.
Over the years, there has been intermittent spats and heated rhetoric between the two countries over the islands. Last month, China agitated Japan when it announced it would carry out a geological survey of the islands as part of an effort to safeguard its "maritime rights and interests."
Both China and Japan have ships in waters around the eight uninhabited islands, which are rich fishing grounds and thought to contain oil deposits, leading to fears of a clash.
In the lead-up to his visit, Abe suggested in an interview with TheWashington Postthat he wants the Obama administration to make clear to China that coercion on the issue is unacceptable.
But White House officials made clear Thursday that maintaining stability in the region is its top priority on the matter.
"I, frankly, am confident that both leaders (Obama and Abe) believe that constructive bilateral relations with China are important - are essential, frankly, for regional growth, and that managing differences is an important part of every bilateral relationship," said Danny Russel, White House National Security Council senior director for Asia.
"Sino-Japanese relations have significant impact on all of us and on all the countries in the region, so it's something that we all pay close attention to. The East China Sea and, frankly, the broader Asia-Pacific region is an area in which stability is in all of our interests."
Another issue that could come up in Friday's meetings is Abe's stance on a 1993 statement from the Japanese government apologizing for forcing about 200,000 women from neighboring countries into sexual servitude during World War II. The victims of the practice were known as "comfort women."
Soon after Abe's victory in December, one of his top deputies suggested that Abe would review the 1993 apology, but Abe subsequently said he would refrain from making further remarks on the matter.
Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., and Mike Honda, D-Calif., wrote to Japan's envoy to Washington earlier this week expressing their concerns. "Japan's government must fully acknowledge, apologize and increase awareness of its history of comfort women," Israel said in a statement.
Russel added that "Obama knows full well that there are very sensitive legacy issues from the last century and believes that it's important to take steps to promote healing. "