Why Bush Jabbed at Beijing

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Bush speaks in Kyoto

President Bush had a tough message to deliver on the first working day of a weeklong swing through Asia, but first he had some fun. The President eschewed the high-priced bric-a-brac that usually passes for host gifts between world leaders, and startled Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Wednesday by cruising up to the bamboo-fenced Kyoto State Guest House on a Segway—the two-wheeled upright self-propelled scooter of the future that is a popular rental for tourists. Witnesses said Koizumi looked taken aback, but accepted Bush's suggestion that he go for a spin. A Japanese Foreign Ministry official told reporters that Bush said he had given one of the gizmos to his parents, and he thinks of Koizumi, also, as family.

Koizumi is still basking in his party's landslide election victory last September, and he is one of Bush's few solid-gold allies. So the overnight stay in the former imperial capital of Kyoto—one of the few cities left where geishas, ancient temples and rickshaws abound—was a way for Bush to draft off of Koizumi's triumph. It was also an opportunity to touch down on friendly turf before plunging into the chaos of an international economic summit in Busan, South Korea, a honeymooners' paradise now on lockdown by police massing on every downtown corner with riot shields and prods that look like spears. “Prime Minister Koizumi is one of my best friends in the international community,” Bush said as the two made their third appearance before cameras during two hours of meetings, which were followed by a long lunch. Koizumi reciprocated, saying he trusts Bush and adding that the “more intimate” the Japan-U.S. relationship, the “easier for us to behave and establish better relations with China, with South Korea and other nations in Asia.”

If the administration is hugging Japan, it is eyeing China warily. On Sunday, Bush plans to goad his hosts a bit by showing up at the Gangwashi Church, a Protestant congregation that is registered with the state but has still suffered persecution, according to evangelical groups. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat in the front row of the church this past Palm Sunday, and drew applause from the congregants. The church, closed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and reopened in 1980, also drew a brief visit in 1998 from then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. It often draws overflow crowds, some of whom have to settle for a closed-circuit TV relay of the service in a separate hall.

Vice President Cheney is among the White House officials with extreme concerns about China as a growing economic and military rival. Before leaving Japan, Bush touched pointedly on the needs of his fellow Christians in the world's most populous country, during a speech laying out an Asian agenda stressing freedom. “I have pointed out that the people of China want more freedom to express themselves, to worship without state control, to print Bibles and other sacred texts without fear of punishment,” he said. ”We encourage China to continue down the road of reform and openness—because the freer China is at home, the greater the welcome it will receive abroad.” Bush also made big news, and likely rankled the Chinese, by praising Taiwan, over which Beijing hopes to restore control, for moving “from repression to democracy” and creating a free society. “In the 21st century, freedom is an Asian value—because it is a universal value,” he said.

Asked whether this was a tad forward on the eve of a visit to China by Bush, White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters on Air Force One: “We have good relations with China, so we're able to speak frankly.” So in the next few days, Bush will face the same challenge he has in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin: How much is too much, and how much is too little, when it comes to jawboning human rights and religious liberty.