Bush in Asia: friendly turf

Rebuffed in Latin America, he is set to push China to open its markets more broadly.

As President Bush arrives in Japan Tuesday, he can be grateful for one thing: He won't have a Hugo Chávez to contend with on a week-long trip to Asia.

Less than two weeks after a Latin American trip that got bogged down in the Venezuelan president's high-profile challenge to the American recipe for prosperity, Mr. Bush heads to friendlier territory.

With a focus on economics and security, the president faces little opposition from a dynamic Asia that has cooperated in the war on terror. Nor does he need to fear a rebuff, like the one dealt him at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, when he attends an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting on Friday in South Korea.

"We could see some ugly scenes in Seoul, because anti-Americanism is running high there and the current government has a populist vein and is not above playing to the crowds," says Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow in East Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "But there's no Hugo Chávez there."

Bush travels to four countries - Japan, South Korea, China, and Mongolia - with his biggest challenge coming from China.

Trade issues and China's currency will top the agenda in Beijing. The US and China last week signed a three-year agreement to reduce the billions of dollars of China's clothing shipments to the United States.

Still, Bush is under pressure from a restive Congress to clamp down even more on Chinese imports and to threaten trade sanctions if China does not revalue the yuan. Congress wants such action in order to open up the huge market of 1.3 billion Chinese to American products.

A push for democracy

At the same time, Bush is under pressure from an alliance of conservatives and neoconservative foreign-policy idealists to do more to advance in China the international agenda of freedom and democracy he laid out in his inaugural address in January.

"The atmosphere in Beijing towards the US is quite positive right now, from their perspective everything is going hunky-dory," says David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University in Washington.

Just back from a trip to China, Mr. Shambaugh says the Chinese are satisfied with the direction even of traditionally prickly issues like Taiwan - but are bewildered by the "barrage of attacks and criticisms from different quarters in Washington" including the Republican right, neoconservative forces, human rights and democracy groups, and trade organizations.

US officials say Bush will bring up the full range of issues that figure in the US-China relationship, but that the president will stick to a more "realist" diplomatic tack that foresees gradual political change in China.

That won't please China's toughest critics here, but it is in line with what Chinese officials anticipate, Shambaugh says.

China's leaders "know they have to talk about the trade deficit and the revaluation of the yuan," he says. "They know they have to listen to Bush on human rights - but they won't discuss it with him."

Better military ties

The US and China are also likely to seal a deal on expanded military exchanges that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been discussing with Chinese officials over recent weeks.

Bush is unlikely to come down too hard on the Chinese on economic issues or to take the same aggressive pro-democracy approach he is applying in the Middle East for one overarching reason, experts say: China is a world power with a veto on the United Nations Security Council.

Bush wants to foster cooperation from Beijing on several key international issues, including Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs, and Syria's influence in Lebanon and Iraq.

AEI's Mr. Blumenthal says he expects to see the White House take a two-pronged approach to China: public pressure on economic issues coupled with behind-closed-doors urging to improve democracy and human rights.

Bush is set to give a major speech on democracy in Kyoto, Japan, Wednesday in which he is expected to emphasize the benefits that democratic reforms would bring to the Chinese people.

"But once in China, the practice has been and will continue to be more private prodding on democracy and human rights - something unlike what we've seen in other countries" where Bush has taken his democratization agenda, Blumenthal says.

Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, the former US trade representative, recently took advantage of several days of talks with Chinese officials to criticize the country's communist political system.

Back seat to religion

The president may mention religious freedoms in public as a gesture to his political base, but Blumenthal says the greater pressure will come on the economic issues.

Earlier this month Washington pressured Beijing into accepting limits on its export to the US of certain textiles, and Congress would like to see more.

Bush is under a certain amount of bipartisan pressure to raise the threat of trade sanctions if China does not allow a further revaluation of its currency.

One reason Bush can expect relatively calm waters over much of his trip is that APEC is an organization focused on economic issues, an area where participating governments largely agree.

But Blumenthal notes that Bush is likely to move somewhat outside that box in bilateral meetings he has set with the president of Indonesia and the prime minister of Malaysia in the margins of the APEC meeting.

"Bush will take up the question of Islam and democracy when he meets with those two leaders," Blumenthal says, "so that's a bit of a switch."

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