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President George W. Bush prodded China on Wednesday to grant more political freedom to its 1.3 billion people and held up archrival Taiwan as a society that successfully moved from repression to democracy as it opened its economy.
In remarks sure to rile Beijing, Bush suggested China should follow Taiwan's path.
"Modern Taiwan is free and democratic and prosperous. By embracing freedom at all levels, Taiwan has delivered prosperity to its people and created a free and democratic Chinese society," the president said.
Bush made his remarks in the advance text of a speech that was to be the cornerstone address of his Asian trip. From Japan, he will continue to South Korea, China and Mongolia.
At a state guest house, Bush met with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, an unflinching ally despite the president's record-low popularity and mounting problems at home. The president called Koizumi his "buddy." Bush wants Japan to play a stronger role in Asian security issues, perhaps as a counterbalance to China's growing strength, vast army and designs on US ally Taiwan.
Koizumi supported the US-led invasion of Iraq and made an unpopular decision to send noncombat troops there in January 2004. That mission expires next month and Bush has indicated he wouldn't press his friend for a decision on whether to extend it.
In his prepared speech, Bush said that China's economic growth must be accompanied by more freedoms for its people.
"As China reforms its economy," the president said, "its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed. As the people of China grow in prosperity, their demands for political freedom will grow as well."
Bush also lectured China about opening its economy to foreign competition to narrow the expected $200 billion trade surplus with the United States. "China needs to provide a level playing field for American businesses seeking access to China's market," Bush said. Further, he said, China must fulfill its promise to move toward a more market-based currency.
Bush's warm words about Taiwan could chill his reception in Beijing later this week when the president, to make a point about religious freedom, also plans to worship at one of five officially recognized Protestant churches in the city.
Bush said Chinese President Hu Jintao has asserted that his vision of "peaceful development" will make the Chinese people more prosperous.
"I have pointed out that the people of China want more freedom to express themselves ... to worship without state control ... and to print Bibles and other sacred texts without state control," Bush said.
By talking about Taiwan, Bush was raising an issue that has been a major US-Chinese irritant.
Taiwan, 100 miles off China's southern coast, split from the mainland when nationalist leaders fled there in 1949 during China's civil war. Since then, Beijing has threatened repeatedly to use force against the self-governed island that China claims as its own.
The island has had de facto independence for more than 50 years, largely because of American support. US officials were taken aback when a Chinese general said last July that Beijing might respond with nuclear weapons if the US were to attack China in a conflict over Taiwan. Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, a dean at China's National Defense University, said that was his personal view and not government policy.
While saluting Taiwan's progress and urging China to take more steps, Bush stressed that the United States was not changing its official policy that there is one China - including Taiwan - or its position that there should be no unilateral attempt to change the status quo by either side. The United States continues to stress a need for dialogue between China and Taiwan "that leads to a peaceful resolution of their differences," Bush said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said agreements between the US and China outnumber differences.
"The Chinese people talk about human rights every day," Li told Hong Kong Cable TV. "Everything we do is for improving the people's livelihood, that includes guaranteeing the people's property rights, political rights and cultural and education rights and democratic development rights."
In Washington, meanwhile, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid criticized the administration's China strategy. "China's non-democratic government has taken actions and pursued policies that understandably stoke concerns and fears in America," Reid said in a letter urging progress in the areas of security, trade and human rights. "The current ad hoc, inconsistent and essentially aimless approach of US policy toward China has exacerbated these fears."
This is the first trip to Asia of Bush's second term, which he opened with a promise to confront oppressive rule around the world in the name of spreading freedom. He has been muted in his criticism of China's human rights policies, and his words in Asia will be closely read as a measure of his sincerity.
"Freedom is the bedrock of America's friendship with Japan and it is the bedrock of our engagement with Asia," Bush said.
"Unlike China, some Asian nations still have not taken even the first steps toward freedom," the president said. He specifically mentioned Burma and said "the people of Burma live in the darkness of tyranny but the light of freedom shines in their heart."
He said the United States also was concerned about freedom in Northeast Asia, particularly on the Korean peninsula. "Satellite maps of North Korea show prison camps the size of whole cities and a country that at night is clothed in almost complete darkness."
Bush's stops in Asia are built around a 21-nation summit in South Korea of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, whose member countries account for about half of the world's trade. The Pacific Rim leaders are expected to press for progress on a new, global trade pact that would slash subsidies and reduce tariffs, with emphasis on freeing agricultural markets for poorer countries. The next round of the negotiations are in Hong Kong next month.