TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will send a clear message to the United States when he visits Washington next week: Japan is ready to take more responsibility for security on the world stage.
Behind that message, the conservative leader will want fresh assurances that America will show up if needed in any clash with China, conversations with politicians and experts show.
"America of course has been committed to and has interest in Asia, but we would like it to turn its eyes even more to Asia, and build up its influence toward China," Hajime Funada, head of a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) panel on revising Japan's pacifist constitution, told Reuters in an interview.
"We have a sense of crisis that (Chinese President) Xi Jinping ... is increasing China's hegemonic motivation."
Constrained by its pacifist constitution, Japan was for decades criticized in the United States for free-riding on U.S. military spending and using money that it would otherwise have used on its own defense to fund its economic development.
Abe will stress in Washington that times have changed for the former enemies, now the closest of allies. "Part of the message will be that Japan will play a bigger role in security," said an official involved in preparations for the trip.
Attention to Abe's handling of Japan's wartime past, still a touchy topic for Asian neighbors 70 years after World War Two's end, could overshadow his message on security. But Abe appears willing to take the risk when he makes the first speech by a Japanese leader to a joint session of Congress on April 29.
The speech will follow Abe's summit with U.S. President Barack Obama the day before and the April 27 unveiling of the first update of U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines since 1997.
Those revisions, which reflect the biggest change in Japanese security policy in decades, will expand the scope for Japan's roles and missions around the world.
Abe's speech coincides with pressure from critics to erase concerns that he wants to whitewash Japan's wartime past, at the same time his conservative domestic allies feel that after 70 years of peaceful policies, fresh apologies are unneeded.
The Japanese official said that during his visit to America Abe would reaffirm Tokyo's commitment to peace and to past government expressions of remorse and apology over the war.
"There was a view that he might step on some landmines (about history), but ... he thinks it is important to convince U.S. leaders and politicians of the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance - that Japan not only relies on the U.S. but is trying to become a proactive player," said Keio University professor Toshihiro Nakayama.
"Because America backing down and not coming (to Japan's aid) is the biggest threat."
Despite U.S. assurances over its commitment, worries persist in Tokyo that one day Washington - overstretched elsewhere in the world as it cuts military spending and linked closely economically to China - may not come to Japan's defense, such as in a clash with Beijing over disputed islets in the East China Sea.
A recent government briefing paper on the defense cooperation guidelines revision said a key goal of the update was to reconfirm America's "strong commitment" to the defense of Japan, according to a copy obtained by Reuters.
In the most dramatic shift in security policy since Japan's military was rebuilt after World War Two, Abe's cabinet last July adopted a resolution reinterpreting the constitution's pacifist Article 9 to allow Japan's armed forces to provide military aid to the United States and other friendly countries under attack, exercising the right to "collective self-defense".
The shift, to be enabled by legislation later this year, will allow Japan's military to take actions such minesweeping during hostilities in the Hormuz Strait in the Persian Gulf. It will also allow logistics support for U.S. forces in conflicts beyond Japan's immediate neighborhood without a specific law for each operation, Japanese lawmakers and government sources said.
(Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo and Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)