Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama kicked off long-awaited summit talks in Tokyo on Thursday morning, aiming to bolster security and economic ties.

The two leaders are expected to issue a joint statement Thursday confirming the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance as a major stabilizer of the Asia-Pacific region.

Obama, who arrived in Japan on Wednesday night on the first leg of a weeklong diplomatic tour, is expected to reassure Abe of Washington’s commitment in the face of an increasingly assertive China.

The leaders are expected to renounce “one-sided attempts to change the status quo by force,” in an apparent reference to China’s muscle-flexing around the Senkaku islets in the East China Sea, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.

Attention is focused on whether Obama will directly refer to China or the Senkakus at a joint press conference following the talks, or in the joint statement.

“The U.S.-Japan alliance is the foundation for not only our security in the Asia-Pacific region but also for the region as a whole and we have continued to strengthen it,” Obama said at the start of the talks at the State Guest House in Tokyo’s Akasaka district.

“We are looking at a whole range of issues that are challenging at this time, including threats posed by North Korea, and the nuclearization that’s been taking place in that country,” Obama said.

Abe, after thanking the U.S. for its help in the aftermath of March 11, 2011, said that the Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of peace and security in the Asian-Pacific region.

“The alliance between our nations is indispensable and irreplaceable as a foundation for peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region,” Abe said, addressing Obama.

“Your visit to Asia this time is a testament to the U.S. rebalancing policy, which has importance to this region,” he said. “This greatly contributes to regional peace and prosperity and Japan strongly supports and certainly welcomes this.”

The two nations are also hoping to reach a broad basic agreement on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

Tokyo and Washington have been at odds over Japan’s tariffs on five agricultural product categories: rice, wheat, beef and dairy products, pork and sugar.

“We represent two of the three largest economies in the world and we have the opportunity by working together to help shape an open, innovative and dynamic economy throughout the Asia-Pacific region,” Obama said, apparently referring to the long-stalled TPP.

Obama plans to visit the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo’s Odaiba district, Meiji Shrine, and then dine Thursday evening at the Imperial Palace. He will also meet relatives of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the afternoon.

The president is scheduled to depart Tokyo Friday morning for Seoul.

Obama is the first U.S. president to make a state visit to Japan since Bill Clinton in 1996.

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