In Asia, Bush speaks more softly

While he didn't get a promise on technology exports, the Chinese did send encouraging signals on North Korea.

George W. Bush is learning a lesson many of his presidential predecessors knew all too well: Pushing American interests in Asia is a very slow, delicate, and often frustrating process.

Throughout Bush's three-country Asian trip, which ends today in China's capital, he has pursued progress on the two issues that matter to him most at home - namely, the war on terrorism and the economy.

But in most cases, the best he could do was to nudge his partners forward - sometimes with a friendly hand, sometimes with a more forceful shove. If the initial press briefing by Mr. Bush and China's President Jiang Zemin is any indication, the Beijing leg of the trip, while upbeat, proved less immediately fruitful than many observers speculated it would be.

The White House did not get what it most wanted: a specific promise from China not to export technology that can be used for high-tech military equipment, including missiles. Rather, China insisted it has never broken an earlier commitment not to export.

"We're getting closer to an understanding of how the Chinese intend to approach some of the issues. But there isn't an agreement," said Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, yesterday.

Although the Chinese are famous for last-minute deals and still have an opportunity to change course, that didn't look to be on the horizon at press time.

But the Americans did get the impression that the Chinese could help with another of President Bush's concerns - North Korea, one of the three members of his "axis of evil." At a joint press conference yesterday, Bush said he requested that President Jiang convey a message that "we would be willing to meet with a North Korean regime."

Last fall, Jiang urged North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to resume dialogue with South Korea, and while Jiang did not explicitly promise to convey Bush's request, Dr. Rice said "he seemed to acknowledge that China had a role to play" in facilitating dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.

An incendiary label

It is the president's State-of-the-Union remarks about North Korea as part of an evil axis that helped turn this trip from a simple touching of bases, set for months ago but postponed in the wake of Sept. 11, into a journey with serious diplomatic import.

In Seoul, for instance, Bush was met with hunger strikers and protesters who believed he was undermining their president's "sunshine" policy of openness with North Korea.

More than once, Bush had to clarify his intentions vis-à-vis this so-called rogue state. "We have no intention of invading North Korea," he said in Seoul.

In his first extended tour through Asia, observers note that President Bush seemed to mimic Ronald Reagan's diplomatic style of extremely tough rhetoric coupled with a soft personal touch.

Just as Reagan stood before the Berlin wall and called on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down, so Bush stood at the demilitarized zone separating the Koreas and called on Kim Jong-Il to finish a road meant to reconnect the two countries. He minced no words, and called the northern regime "despotic" and, once again, "evil."

Yet just as Mr. Reagan could turn on the friendly charm when meeting face to face with Gorbachev, Bush openly supported the "sunshine" policy of his South Korean host, as well as the goal of reunification. He didn't mention the "evil" word in front of him.

Bolstering Japan's effort

Bush made an even more effusive show of support for Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, who has pledged to implement needed but politically difficult economic reform.

The administration is eager to see those reforms more quickly carried out, yet Bush's praise for the prime minister before the Japanese parliament blossomed like a plum tree.

The White House reasoned it ought to be helping the prime minister make his case by publicly siding with him - not publicly criticizing him. The prime minister, for his part, assured the president he is serious about economic reform.

Chinese ties easing?

James Lilley, former US ambassador to China, says the president is applying the Reagan model of hard-and-soft messages to China, too. On the tough side, Bush was unwavering in US support for Taiwan yesterday, and spoke resolutely about religious freedom, requesting that Jiang meet with the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders.

In the joint press conference, Jiang ignored questions put to him by reporters asking about imprisoned Roman Catholic priests, though at the end of the media session he said "some lawbreakers have been detained because of their violation of law, not because of their religious belief."

Some Chinese officials privately say that relations between the US and China are a long-term matter, and they point to progress yesterday toward a gradual process of restoring good and even normal ties - noting that Mr. Jiang will visit the US next fall, and Vice President Hu Jintao will visit in coming months.

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