PUSAN, South Korea – Thirty years ago, George W. Bush was a business student on vacation in Beijing. His father was the U.S. envoy there, forging ties to a nation still isolated from the West, and young George decided to see the city from behind the handlebars of a bicycle.
“I can remember how odd people thought I looked,” he told Asian journalists last week. “There wasn’t much exposure to the West, and all of a sudden, an American starts riding a bike amongst them and it, frankly, surprised some people.”
Today, Bush returns to a much different Beijing for his third formal visit as the U.S. president – this time landing in the bustling capital of a fast-rising superpower. But during a weeklong tour of Asia, Bush has demonstrated varied and sometimes confusing policies toward China that suggest his administration is grasping to confront the changes.
In Japan earlier this week, he called on Chinese President Hu Jintao to embrace political reforms and religious freedom. He pointed to Taiwan, which China views as a rebellious province, as a model for the future.
But in other statements, Bush and his aides describe U.S. relations with China as good, even productive on issues such as curbing North Korea’s nuclear program and planning to confront a possible flu pandemic.
“We have tried to capture all of the complexity, the many dimensions to U.S.-China relations,” said Mike Green, a White House adviser on Asia.
Bush confronted that complexity on every stop this week, addressing China’s role in the region and more broadly in private talks with leaders from Japan, South Korea, Russia and southeast Asian nations.
In Japan, which once dominated the region, tension is high with China. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi angered the Chinese recently by visiting a World War II shrine, renewing memories of Japan’s role in the war.
But in South Korea, Bush found in President Roh Moo-hyun an advocate for closer ties with China as both countries embrace a more conciliatory approach to North Korea than the U.S. has supported.
The demands are mixed at home, as well, where Bush must balance the wishes of two groups critical to the Republican base: businesses, which want access to the massive Chinese market through free trade agreements, and religious conservatives, who want Bush to press hard for religious freedoms as a foothold for evangelical movements.
Democrats call Bush’s policy on China “ad hoc” and aimless, blaming North Korea’s growing nuclear threat and an exploding U.S. trade deficit with China on his inconsistencies.
The administration, which once viewed China as a rival and later as a “strategic partner,” now prefers no label other than “complex.”