When President Bush was flying toward Asia a week ago, his national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, predicted to reporters in the back of the plane that the four-nation trip would yield no "headline breakthroughs." He turned out to be right.
As Bush wrapped up his stay in Beijing on Sunday and prepared to head home Monday after a brief stop in Mongolia, the trip has produced no real breakthroughs of any sort. On a wide variety of issues, from trade to security to human rights, Bush won no concrete agreements from any of his summit partners.
White House officials said that did not mean the trip was unsuccessful, because they never expected to bring home any major agreements in the first place. Such trips, they said, reflect a more mature diplomacy aimed at building relationships and achieving steady progress that will produce gains at some later date. Yet at the same time, it means that a politically weakened Bush returns home without anything high-profile to brag about when he could use some good news.
"I know that it's not like a deliverable or big breakthrough, but when breakthroughs are made you'll be able to point back" at the trip as paving the way, White House counselor Dan Bartlett said. "Some of these things aren't things that happen with the snap of a finger. What these summits do provide is an opportunity to move forward."
Bush wanted Japan to drop its two-year ban on U.S. beef imports, but although Japan seems likely to do so soon, it did not declare its readiness while the president was in town. Bush wanted to propel free trade during an economic summit in South Korea, but the general statement drafted by Pacific Rim leaders drops no tariffs and merely sets the stage for further talks.
In another setback, South Korea's cabinet on Monday backed a proposal to withdraw one-third of the country's 3,200 troops from Iraq.
In China, Bush's meetings with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao produced little progress toward resolving long-standing differences. Hu pledged "to gradually achieve balanced trade between China and the United States" and to "unswervingly press ahead" with plans to allow the Chinese currency to float more freely. But he offered no plan for how he would achieve either goal.
Hu also vowed "to step up" efforts to combat Chinese piracy of American movies and software. Wen insisted at length that Beijing was already waging a vigorous campaign to enforce intellectual property rights. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there was "very important movement" that indicated the Chinese were "taking the issue . . . seriously."
But neither Rice nor other U.S. officials could point to any specific evidence of that. The Bush administration recently gave Beijing a list of 25 factories manufacturing pirated DVDs in China, and there has been no word on whether the Chinese have shut down any of them.
On human rights, Bush's team handed Hu's aides a list of political prisoners when the two met in New York two months ago and had expressed hope that at least some of them would be released by the time the president arrived here, as has been customary in the past. Instead, in the weeks before the visit, Chinese authorities sentenced an underground Christian pastor to three years in prison for illegally printing Bibles and closed down the firm of a prominent human rights lawyer.
Chinese police detained a group of 30 people who tried to see Bush to complain about the lack of political freedoms here, according to a member of the group who called the Associated Press after police stopped them outside the church where the president worshiped Sunday morning.
Rice said U.S. officials complained "quite vociferously" about the crackdown and acknowledged that the Chinese had not acted on the U.S. list. "We've certainly not seen the progress that we would expect, and I think we'll have to keep working on it," she said.
Still, Bush did not directly raise the list with Hu, according to U.S. and Chinese officials, and his words on human rights were muted. "Honestly, human rights issues made up a tiny, tiny, tiny part of the meeting between the leaders of the two countries," said Kong Quan, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman.
The government did keep a promise to allow news coverage of Bush bicycling with Chinese Olympic athletes. But state television refrained from reporting even the mild comments Bush made encouraging China "to continue making the historic transition to greater freedom" during a session with Hu, much less his appearance at a church urging greater religious freedom.
Instead, the national evening news led with extended footage of a welcome ceremony during which Bush walked past a Chinese military guard and an account of his meetings with Hu and Wen that focused on Bush's desire for good relations with China and his support for maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. The only time viewers heard Bush's voice was during a segment on his visit with the Olympic athletes as he joked with them to "take it easy" on him.
Bush's words received far less coverage on state television than during his last trip here in February 2002, when the government allowed live broadcasts of a speech to university students and a 37-minute news conference with then-President Jiang Zemin. This time, reporters were not even allowed to ask questions during Bush's appearance with Hu. Bush later met with reporters alone to take questions.
The meeting was Bush's fifth with Hu and the first in Beijing since the Chinese leader was named to head the ruling Communist Party in late 2002. Aides said the relationship was developing. The meeting was "more comfortable" with "less set-piece reading of points," according to an administration official.
The Bush team is investing in Hu as the best option within the Chinese establishment even though he has presided over a crackdown on the media, religion, academia and other elements of civil society. "He's no Thomas Jefferson," the official acknowledged, "but there are a lot of people in the political world who are more reactionary."
Bush was particularly struck by Hu's description in New York of the challenges entailed in managing a nation of 1.3 billion, including mass unemployment, rising social unrest and a widening income gap, officials said. Hu's vision of "peaceful development" raising the prosperity of his people impressed Bush, they added.
The conversation will continue early next year when Hu comes to Washington for a trip making up for one canceled in September because of Hurricane Katrina. And for Bush, aides insisted, that was the real achievement of this trip.
"China is a big, growing, strong country," the president said. "And it's very important for me to maintain a good working relationship with the leadership here."
Correspondent Anthony Faiola in Tokyo contributed to this report.