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US-Japan leaders discuss trade, China, and North Korea

President Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Friday. Major topics included Japan's joining a regional trade pact, North Korea's recent nuclear test, and a Japan-China territorial dispute.

By Staff writer / February 22, 2013

President Barack Obama listens as Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question from a reporter in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 22, 2013.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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WASHINGTON

Domestic issues like immigration, gun violence, and looming across-the-board spending cuts may top President Obama’s second-term agenda. But he hasn’t forgotten his vision of rebalancing US security and economic priorities towards Asia – a priority he sought to re-emphasize by receiving Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House Friday for lunch and talks.

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Following a morning meeting with Democratic governors, Mr. Obama greeted Mr. Abe for discussions focused on East Asia’s security challenges and expanding economic opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region – what White House officials describe as the two principle focal points of the pivot to Asia Obama announced at the outset of his presidency.

On the security agenda, the two leaders discussed the international community’s response to North Korea’s third nuclear test last month, and the maritime disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea that have led to increasingly tense relations between China and several of its neighbors – including Japan.

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At a brief picture-taking session with reporters before lunch, Obama fielded several questions on prospects for avoiding “sequestration,” or the automatic federal spending cuts set to take effect March 1. Abe answered a query about North Korea, saying, “We just cannot tolerate the actions of North Korea, such as launching missiles and conducting nuclear tests,” Saying he and Obama “agreed we would cooperate with one another and deal resolutely” with Pyongyang, Abe specifically cited the possibility of stiffer “financial sanctions.”

On the regional economy, conversation focused on Japan’s interest in joining a trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently being negotiated among the US and 10 other Asia-Pacific countries.

In a joint statement issued after the two leaders’ talks, the two governments agreed that “more work needs to be done” before Japan could be included in the 11-country negotiations. The statement says that in particular Japan would have to address “concerns” over its tightly protected automotive and insurance sectors, although it also says Japan would not be required to “make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs” in order to join the talks – something that had been a sticking point for Abe. 

The US says it would like to welcome Japan into the talks for the TPP – which the US envisions as a template for 21st-century international trade and investment agreements – but it says Japan would first have to open its auto and food markets to more imports.

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