"We played tennis and lost, 6-3 6-4. George was tired, and I played lousy...'"
So wrote George Herbert Walker Bush in his diary on June 4, 1975. The "George" who was tired that day was his son, George W. Bush jet lagged, no doubt, because the tennis court they played on was in Beijing. 'Bush 43' was then fresh out of the Harvard Business School, and 'Bush 41' was chief of the first United States Liason Office in Beijing the de facto embassy that had opened after Richard Nixon's historic opening to China in 1972.
This Friday, August 8, 2008, father and son are in Beijing again, for an occasion that neither will need a diary entry to remember. The former President introduced his son at a dedication ceremony for a sprawling new U.S. embassy complex, just 12 hours before Beijing opened the 2008 Summer Olympics, ratifying its astonishing three-decade rise from penury to global power.
Bush 43 is on the last stop of what is his last ever tour of east Asia as President. And while, at the embassy on Friday morning, he gracefully acknowledged history's extraordinary progress the Beijing of 2008 bears no resemblance to the dusty, impoverished capital he visited 33 years ago the trip is neither a Bush family exercise in nostalgia, nor a farewell tour for a Chief Executive with just months left in office. For Bush, it is about an array of present dangers Iran above all.
In Seoul, Bush had met with President Lee Myung-bak to plot what he hopes will be the next phase in North Korea's slow motion nuclear disarmament. In Bangkok, he dutifully praised southeast Asia's economic progress, then slammed both the Rangoon regime's human rights record and that of his soon to be hosts, the Chinese. The U.S., he said, has "deep concerns over religious freedom and human rights. The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings."
Those lines, deep into a lengthy speech, were too much for the traveling press to pass up. Bush hadn't exactly stepped off Air Force One wearing a gas mask, as the U.S. Olympics cyclists did earlier this week, but he had, according to the press narrative, slammed Beijing on the eve of his final trip here. Beijing's foreign ministry dutifully returned fire, denouncing Bush for "meddling in China's internal affairs."
But the speech, pre arranged and carefully scripted, was nothing the Chinese didn't expect. A beaming foreign minister, Yang Jieche Beijing's former Ambassador to Washington greeted Bush warmly when he arrived in Beijing Thursday night. Publicly, Bush kept to the script as to why he had come to Beijing. "I'm lookin' forward to goin' to the games," he concluded his speech at the embassy Friday morning.
In truth, both U.S. and Chinese sources acknowledge that Bush has more urgent business. Bush will meet with both Hu Jintao, his Chinese counterpart, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin both veto wielding members of the U.N. Security Council. With world capitals now awash in rumors about what Israel might do militarily to prevent the government in Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, Bush will press China and Russia for stiffer economic sanctions against Tehran, which is resolutely refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Tehran let another informal deadline pass last weekend, and reiterated it had no intention of stopping its enrichment, which it again said is for peaceful purposes only.
In the weeks leading up to his Asia trip, the Bush administration went farther than ever in trying to engage Iran. The State Department backed off on its insistence that one-on-one negotiations with Iran are off the table until Tehran suspends its enrichment, and the undersecretary of state for political affairs, William Burns, went to Geneva to meet with Iranian officials. He got nothing to show for it, and then Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, explained why. "Taking one step back against the arrogant powers will lead them to take one step forward," he said.
After those failures, Bush's message to both Hu and Putin this weekend will be that having Iran is refusing to play ball despite American efforts. And there are signs that Beijing is beginning to share Bush's frustration. "Iran," a senior Chinese official acknowledged to a western visitor before Bush's arrival, "is on thin ice."
The Chinese get more than half of their surging oil imports from the Middle East and are deathly afraid of turmoil in the Persian Gulf. "They lose sleep at night thinking that they [rely] on the Middle East," says Jon Alterman, a senior fellow at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of a new study called "The Vital Triangle: China, the United States, and the Middle East."
It's that triangle not human rights or the 100 meter dash that is at the core of Bush's business in Beijing this weekend. But even if the Chinese may be sidling up to the idea of one last sanctions push, it's not at all clear that Bush's fellow sports nut, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is. Though Moscow is a major oil producer and sells arms to Tehran and Syria (among others) in the Middle East, it presumably would want to avoid the crisis an Israeli strike might bring. For one thing, another big spike in crude oil prices could cripple oil demand in the west, and drive down global prices for the other commodities Russia exports. But so far Moscow has shown no public inclination to support tougher sanctions than those that already exist on Iran. A Russian government spokesman confirmed that Iran would be on the agenda when Bush sees Putin in Beijing but would say no more.
To Bush, time is of the essence; not only is his term was running out, but the world's ability, via diplomacy, to keep Iran from getting nukes is also slipping away. As the Olympics begin, the world's most dangerous game is about to be joined in Beijing, its outcome still perilously uncertain.