President Bush issued a carefully calibrated call for greater liberty throughout Asia on Wednesday, implicitly comparing the "free and democratic Chinese society" in Taiwan with repression in mainland China.
Laying out the agenda for his week-long visit to four countries, Bush declared that "freedom is an Asian value" and held out Japan, South Korea and Taiwan as models. He lambasted Burma and North Korea as tyrannies and characterized China as somewhere in between, a nation that has "taken some steps toward freedom" but "not yet completed the journey."
"As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed," Bush said in the prepared text of a speech to be delivered later in the day. "As the people of China grow in prosperity, their demands for political freedom will grow as well," Bush said. "By meeting the legitimate demands of its citizens for freedom and openness, China's leaders can help their country grow into a modern, prosperous and confident nation."
The president's address was designed to strike a delicate balance between honoring his second-term inaugural vow to promote freedom around the world and maintaining harmonious relations with one of the United States' most important trading partners. Delivering the speech in Japan rather than in China, and gently pushing the one-party government in China to open up its autocratic society, Bush couched his words in the tone of friendly advice.
But by juxtaposing praise for Taiwan with the conclusion that China needs to do more, Bush risked angering the Chinese government several days before he was scheduled to head to Beijing. For the Chinese leadership, any discussion of Taiwan is exceedingly sensitive, and U.S. commentary in particular is seen as unwelcome interference in a domestic issue.
In an effort to avoid a rupture, Bush reaffirmed the United States' "one-China" policy, which envisions the eventual peaceful reunification of China while committing to providing Taiwan aid to defend itself against military aggression. Stressing "the need for dialogue," Bush insisted that "there should be no unilateral attempts to change the status quo by either side."
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing later responded with his own reiteration of policy. "We can talk about the Taiwan problem with the U.S., but the U.S. must recognize that Taiwan is part of China," he told the Bloomberg news agency. "The stance of Taiwanese independence should not be supported."
The discussion of freedom in Asia came as Bush started his first full day in Japan. U.S.-Japanese relations are at what many specialists call the highest point in some time, thanks in part to Bush's friendship with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. But the Japanese leader is slated to step down next September, and the two sides face several tough issues.
Perhaps most critical to Bush is the continuing presence of Japanese Self-Defense Forces in Iraq. Although Japan appears likely to extend its mission in Iraq beyond the current deadline of Dec. 14, Japanese news media outlets have reported that the government probably will begin pulling out its almost 600 noncombat ground troops by early to mid-2006. However, Japan is likely to keep in place airborne forces that are engaged in transportation of goods in region.
While praising Japan for its contributions, Bush chose not to press Koizumi publicly to stay in Iraq when asked about the issue during a joint news conference. His message, Bush said, was: "Make up your own mind. It's your decision, not mine."
Bush and Koizumi made no breakthrough on another issue dividing the two nations, the two-year-old Japanese ban on U.S. beef imports, imposed after a single cow tested positive for mad cow disease. American officials have pressured Japan, the largest overseas market for U.S. beef, to lift the ban. After months of wrangling, a Japanese food safety commission last month issued a report declaring U.S. beef from younger cattle safe, and the government is now expected to lift the ban by the end of the year.
Bush and Koizumi also discussed another long-standing issue. Japan and the United States agreed last month on a broad plan for realigning U.S. troops in Okinawa. However, the Okinawa government and local residents remain staunchly opposed to the plan, insisting on moving even more Marines off the island. But Koizumi called on "local communities" to be understanding, saying Japan benefits from the basing of U.S. forces on its soil and must be prepared to bear a burden.
None of those issues, however, seemed to threaten the friendly get-together. Koizumi hit back at critics who have chided him for distancing Tokyo from China and South Korea over revisionist war history. He suggested that the best way to deal with Japan's neighbors was, in fact, to strengthen Tokyo's alliance with Washington.
After leaving Japan, Bush plans to head to South Korea for the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and then to China and Mongolia. He used his speech to link his democracy drive to the trip's other priorities, particularly expansion of free trade and a broader effort to head off an avian influenza pandemic.
As he toured this ancient imperial capital known for its temples and shrines, visiting the Kinkakuji Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Bush also alluded to the modern-day issue most associated with the city's name. Although Bush long ago rejected the global greenhouse gas treaty negotiated in Kyoto in the 1990s, he asserted that his initiatives are "addressing the long-term challenge of climate change" by promoting cleaner energy policies.
But the heart of his opening address focused on the benefits of freedom for the region. He spared nothing in harshly condemning Burma and North Korea as examples of repression. By comparison, he said, Taiwan "has moved from repression to democracy" and benefited economically as a result. "By embracing freedom at all levels, Taiwan has delivered prosperity to its people and created a free and democratic Chinese society," Bush said.
He praised the Chinese government for moving to open up economically and said now "the people of China want more freedom to express themselves, to worship without state control and to print Bibles and other sacred texts without fear of punishment."
Asked at the news conference about his language, Bush demurred on the comparison with Taiwan. "My message is universal, not necessarily trying to compare one system to another," he said. "What I say to the Chinese as well as others is that a free society is in your interests."