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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama accused China on Tuesday of "flexing its muscles" to advance its maritime claims against Asian neighbors and assured Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the U.S. commitment to defend Japanese territory, including tiny islands in dispute with Beijing.
Speaking at a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said a strong U.S.-Japan alliance should not be seen as a provocation to China, but he sought to put to rest any Japanese doubts on whether Washington would stand by Tokyo in a possible confrontation with Beijing.
"I want to reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute," Obama said with Abe standing at his side.
On the economic front, Obama and Abe agreed their nations would work to bring a quick, successful conclusion to talks over a 12-member Pacific trade agreement, despite the failure so far of U.S. and Japanese negotiators to work out the final terms of a bilateral deal essential to any broader accord.
"Prime Minister Abe, like me, is deeply committed to getting this done and I’m confident we will," Obama told reporters.
Hailing the U.S.-Japan partnership as "indestructible," Obama welcomed Abe to the White House on a visit aimed at showcasing deeper defense ties and advancing the Pacific trade pact as the two allies seek to counter China's growing assertiveness in the region.
But even as both leaders sought to look forward, Abe was dogged during his U.S. visit by awkward questions about his handling of Japan's wartime past.
The official agenda is intended to highlight how times have changed for the former bitter World War Two enemies – even though sticking points remain.
Obama and Abe used their Oval Office meeting on Tuesday to put their stamp on new guidelines for defense cooperation, a sign of Japan's readiness to take more responsibility for its own security as well as regional defense.
But while Japan moves to loosen restrictions on its post- war pacifist constitution, details are still to be worked out on how much leeway its military will have to assist U.S. forces beyond Japanese waters, especially in the tense South China Sea.
Japan is in direct dispute with Beijing over Japanese-administered East China Sea islets known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China.
But an even greater source of regional tension has been China's rapid reclamation effort around seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea, which has alarmed claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
While insisting the United States welcomes China's "peaceful rise," Obama said: "I don't want to minimize ... that there are some real tensions that have arisen with China around its approach to maritime issues and its claims."
Obama said the Chinese "feel that rather than resolve these issues through normal international dispute settlements, they are flexing their muscles," Obama said. "That's the wrong way to go about it."
Though the White House dashed hopes for a breakthrough U.S.-Japan trade deal during Abe's visit, the leaders tried to push the negotiations forward. Obama said the two leaders had reviewed the progress so far, and Abe called for efforts toward an "early conclusion" of the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact.
Abe, who on Wednesday will be the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, will face the challenge of helping Obama win over fellow Democrats who oppose the trade deal as being bad for U.S. jobs.
A deal between the two economic powerhouses is vital to clinching the TPP, which would cover a third of world trade. But differences remain between Washington and Tokyo over autos and agriculture.
At the same time, worries have persisted in Tokyo that Washington may not come to Japan's defense if needed one day in a maritime clash with China.
Obama sought to reassure the Japanese when he renewed a commitment, made during his visit to Tokyo last April, to defend Japan against any threat to its territory. But U.S. officials have made clear they want to avoid any such military engagement.
Abe's speech to Congress will be closely scrutinized for what he says about Japan's wartime past, still a sensitive issue for Asian neighbors, including China and U.S. ally South Korea, nearly 70 years after the end of World War Two.
He is under pressure from critics to erase concerns that he wants to whitewash Japan's role of wartime aggression. His conservative domestic allies feel fresh apologies are unneeded.
When asked by a reporter whether he would make a full apology for Japan's actions during World War Two, Abe stuck to the formulation he has used before of saying he upholds previous statements of remorse by former prime ministers.
"I am deeply pained to think about the 'comfort women' who experience immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking," he said. "This is a feeling that I share equally with my predecessors."
"Comfort women" is a Japanese euphemism for the thousands of Korean and other Asian women forced into prostitution at Japanese military brothels before and during World War Two.
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Chizu Nomiyama, Julia Edwards, Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason; Editing by Paul Simao