Bush Says It's 'Important to Engage' China
A Mixed Appraisal on Eve of Visit

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE, Aug. 4 -- Three days before he is set to arrive in Beijing for the Olympics, President Bush offered a mixed assessment of China's role in the world, praising its efforts to curb the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, expressing disappointment about its recent move to help scuttle global trade talks, and saying that it is "really hard to tell" whether human rights in China have improved over the past eight years.

Bush said that he speaks candidly with Chinese President Hu Jintao about human rights, particularly religious freedom, and that he has shared his religious beliefs with Hu and Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, urging them to lift restrictions on underground churches.

"My main objective in my discussions on religious freedom is to remind this new generation of leadership that religion is not to be feared but to be welcomed in society," Bush said in an interview. Asked whether he thinks he is making an impact on Hu, he replied: "Oh, I think he listens, absolutely. I think he's interested. . . . He absorbs, he takes in, he listens."

Bush said China must do more to pressure repressive governments in Burma and Sudan, where he suggested Beijing's interest in acquiring raw materials to fuel China's booming economy is conflicting with an interest in stopping the killing in Sudan's Darfur region. But he skirted a question about a pre-Olympics security drive by Chinese authorities that human rights advocates call a crackdown on dissent.

"They're hypersensitive to a potential terrorist attack," Bush said. "And my hope is, of course, that as they have their security in place, that they're mindful of the spirit of the Games, and that if there is a provocation, they handle it in a responsible way without violence."

The president has been criticized by some lawmakers and human rights groups for his decision to attend the Games. He explained his rationale: "One of the reasons I'm going is because I want to show respect to the Chinese people, and this is a proud moment for China."

Bush also grappled with how to gauge openness and freedom in China today. "I mean, this is a closed society in many ways," he said. "The Internet provides interesting opportunities for people to express themselves. Sometimes it's open, sometimes the filters are there. I've talked to the evangelicals who go there who feel like the underground church movement has gotten a few steps forward, a step-and-a-half back. It's really hard to tell."

During a half-hour interview in his private office aboard Air Force One, Bush emphasized that it is "important to engage the Chinese" -- a striking comment for a president who came to office with aides depicting China as a "strategic competitor" and surrounded by hawks who looked suspiciously upon the Chinese government. Even critics of the president say he has emerged as an unexpected diplomat with China, conducting a personal campaign to woo the senior Chinese leadership.

The president was on his way to Alaska for a brief rally with troops before flying to Seoul for the first stop of a seven-day trip to Asia, culminating this weekend with an appearance at the opening ceremonies in Beijing, attendance at athletic events, worship at a Chinese church, and meetings with Hu and other officials.

Bush's planned meeting with Hu at the Olympics this month will be his 15th meeting with a Chinese president. His visit to China will be the fourth of his presidency; no other U.S. president has visited China more than once.

Over the course of his administration, Bush has delivered for China in important and unexpected ways: A president who in his early days made a guarantee to defend Taiwan later warned the island against declaring independence and has established what China experts see as a de facto freeze on arms sales to Taiwan. After angering China by labeling North Korea part of an "axis of evil," Bush led a diplomatic initiative aimed at cooling tensions on the Korean Peninsula. While critical of China on human rights, Bush has not hectored authorities in Beijing. authorities.

He and his advisers say his approach has paid off: The United States has secured Chinese help on North Korea and Iran while avoiding a blowup in the Taiwan Strait, despite the intense passions and military buildups on both sides.

Advisers also said they are pleased about China's moves in recent years to allow its currency to rise, making U.S. exports to China cheaper. Bush acknowledged some economic concerns with China, saying that the Chinese appear to be retreating on promises they made to open their agriculture markets to join the World Trade Organization.

Neoconservatives, human rights activists and others who have thrilled to the president's "freedom agenda" in other parts of the world contend that Bush has muted his rhetoric on democracy in the name of friendly ties with China, while accommodating China on Taiwan.

"In terms of effectiveness, the so-called quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy so far is a failure," said Bob Fu, founder of the China Aid Association and one of several activists who met with Bush last week at the White House. "On the human rights front, as we approach the Olympics, China really has the worst record and is deteriorating up until today."

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China posed the Bush administration's first foreign policy crisis, when a Chinese fighter jet and a Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane collided off the coast of China in April 2001. The Chinese pilot vanished, and the hobbled spy plane landed on Hainan island, where the crew was placed in the custody of Chinese authorities. Chinese officials refused to return U.S. phone calls for 24 hours, adding drama to a situation that some officials worried could lead to military conflict.

The crisis was defused by two weeks of tense diplomacy, led by then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his deputy, Richard L. Armitage. Bush recounted the incident in the interview: "The lesson of the EP3 was that it's really important to be [in] a position to have quick communications with a nation as large and as important as China," he said.

Officials considered more hawkish on China, such as then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, took some steps after the EP-3 incident, such as limiting military-to-military consultations with China. But the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shifted the focus of the China hawks, according to many current and former officials. Its eyes on Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration had little interest in a confrontation with China.

U.S. policy toward China, particularly during Bush's second term, has been dominated by pragmatists, including Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., who set up a high-level economic dialogue with China, and former deputy secretary of state Robert B. Zoellick, who argued publicly that China should become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system.

The threat of terrorism also helped transform China in the administration's eyes, from a potential adversary to a potential partner in dealing with North Korea and Iran. China also won points by giving the administration a pass on Iraq. During a meeting with Powell in the run-up to the war, then-Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said that while China opposed an invasion, it would not obstruct U.S. efforts. "They have been studiously silent on Iraq," said Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush.

Current and former advisers also emphasize that Bush came into office with well-developed views on China, a result of the close family association dating to his father's days as a U.S. envoy there in the early 1970s. Bush paid a long visit to his parents in 1975, and in recently published diaries, the elder Bush recalls playing tennis with his son in Beijing and how a Chinese dentist fixed young George's tooth for 60 cents.

Chinese leaders have sought to exploit such family ties. After George W. Bush won the presidency, China sent Yang Jiechi to Washington as ambassador. Yang, now foreign minister, had served as an interpreter for Bush's father during a 1977 tour of China and was nicknamed "Tiger" by the Bush family.

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Bush has also sought to employ his personal diplomacy in soliciting China's help in pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Early on in the administration, Chinese were alarmed by Bush's bellicose rhetoric toward Pyongyang. But the Bush policy has moderated in the second term, and with it Chinese inhibitions about working with the United States through six-party talks.

Early in the administration, Bush invited then-President Jiang Zemin to his Texas ranch and pressed him on North Korea, according to senior officials. When Jiang said North Korea was a U.S. problem, Bush warned that if North Korea went nuclear, Japan might do the same, not a happy outcome from China's perspective.

A few years later, at a White House luncheon for Hu, Bush insisted that he sit next to the Chinese leader instead of his wife, as protocol normally dictates. That allowed for a more relaxed conversation, in which Bush tried to assure the Chinese leader that he was willing to sign a deal with North Korea -- but that he needed Hu's help.

In 2006, when the United States received intelligence that North Korea was about to test a nuclear advice, Bush ordered the intelligence to be shared immediately with the Chinese. After the test, Bush's first phone call was to Hu. According one senior administration official, Bush challenged him: "They have tested. They haven't just defied the United States. They've defied you, too, China."

U.S. officials contend that Bush's ability to engage China has been a major reason for the recent breakthrough with North Korea, in which the communist state provided an inventory of its nuclear program in return for being taken off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Other experts said the only reason for the deal has been Bush's willingness to relax his terms with Pyongyang.

Asked whether he thinks North Korea is going to give up its nuclear weapons, Bush replied: "That's to be seen. But I know that there's a structure in place that will make it more likely they will. Because not only do you have the United States speaking out, now you have China speaking out."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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