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YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Saturday lauded Washington's 50-year-old alliance with Japan as vital to the stability of the Asia-Pacific region, as he signaled that the strains of the last year now lay in the past.
U.S. relations with Tokyo frayed after the Democratic Party of Japan swept to power last year vowing to forge more equal ties with the United States and review an agreement on relocating a U.S. Marine airbase on Japan's Okinawa island.
But wariness over a rising China and an unpredictable North Korea has bolstered incentives to strengthen the alliance.
"With regard to our shared security, we affirmed our commitment to our alliance, which marks its 50 anniversary this year," Obama said, standing beside Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan as they spoke to reporters after meeting on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in Yokohama, south of Tokyo.
"The commitment of the United States to the defense of Japan is unshakeable," Obama said.
"Our alliances, bases, and forward presence are essential not only to Japan's security, but ... they help us ensure stability and address regional challenges across North Asia," he added.
In an oblique reference to China, Obama praised Japan as setting a good example globally for other nations.
"Japan is really a model citizen internationally and works in support of international rules and norms that can make all of us more prosperous and more secure," the president said.
Strains have dogged Beijing's relations with both Washington and Tokyo recently, and both are wary of China's hefty military spending and willingness to send its navy further afield.
The United States wants China to let its yuan currency appreciate to help cut its huge trade surplus. Beijing says Washington is using an easy money policy to boost exports.
Sino-Japanese ties have soured due to a dispute over islands in the East China Sea, while Tokyo's relations with Russia chilled after President Dmitry Medvedev visited an isle north of Japan claimed by both countries.
"In Japan's relations with China and Russia, recently we've faced some problems, and the United States has supported Japan throughout, so I expressed my appreciation to him for that," Kan said.
"For the peace and security of the countries in the region, the presence of the United States and the presence of the U.S. military I believe is only becoming increasingly important."
Obama's trip to Tokyo last year had been markedly cooler, due to a dispute over where to relocate the Marines' Futenma airbase and concerns that Kan's predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, might tilt Tokyo's foreign policy more toward China.
Kan said he'd make maximum efforts to implement a deal on the base agreed between the two countries, once local elections there were decided, although the outlook for success is dim.
Obama repeated Washington's support for Japan's bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and said Kan had accepted an invitation to visit the United States next year.
Obama said he and Kan had discussed preventing the spread of nuclear weapons -- a clear nod toward Iran and North Korea -- as well as Afghanistan, where Japan is the largest aid donor.
Obama also welcomed Japan's interest in the U.S.-led Transpacific Partnership (TPP) free trade initiative.
Kan's government has said it wanted to start talks with the group's nine members but stopped short of seeking to join formal negotiations due to opposition from politically powerful farmers.
Writing by Patricia Zengerle and Alister Bull; Editing by Linda Sieg and Edmund Klamann