In the privacy of the Yellow Oval Room in the White House residence overlooking the Washington Monument one day last week, President Bush hosted one of China's archenemies. The Dalai Lama gave him a white scarf called a khata as a token of respect. Bush served tea and sipped from a glass of water. They talked about the continuing plight of Tibet.

But the visit was not put on the president's advance public schedule. No journalists were invited in to record the moment, as at the end of many Bush meetings. The president made no public comments about Tibet. The White House released an official photograph but did not post it on the home page of its Web site along with the other events of his day.

The delicate diplomatic dance illustrated Bush's complex relationship with China as he leaves tomorrow on his first trip to Asia since reelection. Meeting with the spiritual leader of the repressed Tibetan people just before heading to Beijing was intended to send a signal about Bush's commitment to human rights in the world's most populous country. Yet the effort to keep the session essentially out of public view was intended to avoid insulting his soon-to-be hosts.

Perhaps no country presents a greater challenge to the vision Bush outlined in his second inaugural address than China. As he took the oath in January, Bush made it the mission of his presidency to promote freedom and democracy around the world, vowing to confront "every ruler and every nation" and predicate U.S. relations with other governments on how they treat their own people.

Yet when it comes to China, home of 1.3 billion people living under communist rule, Bush and his administration seem more animated by economic and security issues. In public at least, the Bush team's discussion of democracy and human rights in China often is muted in soft tones and quickly dispensed with to move on to other matters.

"It's definitely become one of the pillars of what the president is willing to do when it comes to China," said John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, who credits Bush for pushing human rights. "But the question is always: How much is the administration really invested in it? How hard do they really push? Raising it with the Chinese leadership is one thing. Really pushing it is another. And the Chinese leadership has been getting some mixed messages."

Bush is to talk about the importance of freedom during a speech not in China but at the first stop of his week-long trip, in Kyoto, Japan. After Kyoto, Bush flies to Pusan, South Korea, for the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC. He visits China after that to sit down with President Hu Jintao, and then stops in Mongolia.

When it comes to China, where his father served as ambassador in the 1970s, Bush is pulled by competing factions within his own political coalition. A powerful alliance of neoconservatives and Christian conservatives urges him to take on Chinese tyranny, particularly oppression of religion. Yet the president seems more influenced by his party's business wing, which sees great opportunity and wants to integrate China into the international community.

"Economics is the main thing now," said James R. Lilley, ambassador to Beijing under President George H.W. Bush. "Democracy for China? Don't hold your breath."

Lilley noted that the two main players in China policy now are Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, the former trade representative, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has challenged China's secretive military spending. "Zoellick knows economics and he's taken the lead, with Rumsfeld standing in the corner with a baseball bat."

The day before Bush met with the Dalai Lama, he gave an interview to Phoenix Television, a Hong Kong station, which asked what he wanted to address while in China. The president raised trade, intellectual property rights, terrorism, North Korea, Iran and energy. He made no mention of freedom or democracy.

Bush shows no such reticence with nations less friendly to the United States. In a speech last Friday, for instance, Bush was stark about the "authoritarian regime" in Syria, with a population of 18 million, barely 1 percent of China's. Freedom House has given both countries the lowest possible ranking for political rights. The difference reflects the many levels in which China is important to the United States. The two countries do $230 billion in trade a year, U.S. businesses lose enormous money from pirated DVDs and software, and Washington relies on Beijing to pressure North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons.

"The U.S.-China relationship is a relationship where you have to walk and chew gum at the same time," said Michael J. Green, the president's chief Asia adviser at the National Security Council.

Bush raises human rights issues in a "constructive spirit" and is optimistic that China will see that freedom is necessary to build a successful society, Green said. "We're not going into this with the premise that China is wrong. We're going into this with the premise that China is moving in a direction and that China's leaders are moving China in a direction that's going to be ultimately good for them and the world, but that these are things they have to do to succeed."

For many foreign policy veterans, such a nuanced approach represents a welcome realism compared with what they see as the more naive, ideologically edged neoconservative policy toward democracy in the Middle East.

"There's a realization that we have to accept China for what it is," said James Sasser, another former ambassador who now represents clients doing business in China, such as FedEx, Ford Motor Co. and Motorola. "The influence that we can have on China in economics and political development . . . and human rights is frankly peripheral."

Elizabeth Economy, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Bush has reached the same conclusion as his predecessors when it comes to pressing China on democracy. "There's always been a determination that a) we're not going to get anywhere with that kind of push, and b) we have some very big fish to fry with China."

But it disappoints conservatives who believe Bush has shown less commitment to his grand inaugural vision when it comes to China. "We really have to do more of standing with the dissidents publicly because . . . when we stand with them publicly we send a message," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). Asked what drives U.S. policy toward China, he said: "Business, business, business, business, business, business."

"People in the White House," said John J. Tkacik Jr., a specialist at the Heritage Foundation, "honestly believe China will democratize on its own and does not need any hard push from the outside to get it moving in that direction. I think it is misguided. If you leave it alone, it will just become a stronger, more disciplined dictatorship."

The arc of Bush's relationship with China has changed since he took office. Although he recalls bicycling around Beijing when visiting his father, Bush arrived in the White House deeply skeptical of China, calling it a "strategic competitor," not a "strategic partner." But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shifted the relationship. China supported the U.S. struggle with terrorism, and Bush turned his attention to Afghanistan and Iraq.

In December 2003, with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at his side, Bush even urged Taiwan not to hold a constitutional referendum to avoid provoking Beijing. Gerrit van der Wees of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a pro-Taiwan group, said that represented a "slap in the face" to a democratic nation. "If you want to spread democracy in the world," he said, "you have to have more support of those who already got there."

Administration officials still raise the issue of democracy in China. In September, fresh from three days of talks with top Chinese officials, Zoellick warned Beijing that it is "risky and mistaken" to believe the Communist Party's monopoly can be secured "through emphasizing economic growth and heightened nationalism." He said pressure is building for political change because a closed political system is "simply not sustainable."

The Chinese government was taken aback. Zheng Bijian, a senior adviser to the Chinese leadership, responded this month at a conference in Beijing, saying the "pragmatic spirit" of Zoellick's address was marred by "ideological prejudices." Bijian argued that China is building "a sound democratic system which allows the people to participate in politics in an orderly manner will ensure the well-being for our people."

President Bush, wearing a scarf given by the Dalai Lama, discussed Tibet but did not publicize Wednesday's meeting.