Piquing China just days before meetings with its leaders, President Bush on Wednesday held up the self-governing island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, as a model of freedom "at all levels" that the communist giant should emulate.
Bush's speech opening a four-country tour of Asia amounted to a road map of the coming discussions he was to have on a potential bird flu outbreak, global trade, North Korea's nuclear ambitions and other issues at a gathering of Pacific Rim economies in South Korea.
After meeting here with his closest Asian ally, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Bush arrived in Busan, South Korea, on Wednesday night for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and a one-on-one meeting with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. The president was traveling to China and Mongolia over the weekend.
In remarks sure to irritate his Chinese hosts, Bush prodded the communist nation to grant basic freedoms to its 1.3 billion people and further open its economy.
"We encourage China to continue down the road of reform and openness," Bush told an audience that stayed silent until its polite applause at the end. "By meeting the legitimate demands of its citizens for freedom and openness, China's leaders can help their country grow into a modern, prosperous, and confident nation."
His challenge to Beijing immediately followed lavish praise of Taiwan.
"By embracing freedom at all levels, Taiwan has delivered prosperity to its people and created a free and democratic Chinese society," Bush said. Pointing to Taiwan — as well as South Korea — Bush said political freedoms are the inevitable product of the kind of economic liberalization China has begun pursuing.
"Men and women who are allowed to control their own wealth will eventually insist on controlling their own lives and their own future," he said. "As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed."
Comparing Taiwan and China, even indirectly, raises a major thorn in U.S.-China relations. China regards the island as its own and has threatened to invade if Taiwan declares formal independence.
While U.S. policy recognizes only one China — including Taiwan — and opposes Taiwanese independence, Washington also is Taiwan's largest arms benefactor and is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act to help Taiwan defend itself if attacked.
Taiwan, which has de facto independence, has resisted Beijing's rule since the Communists took over the mainland in 1949.
Bush's speech was an attempt to follow through on his inaugural promise to predicate U.S. relations with all nations on their treatment of their citizens — a pledge that meets its most difficult test with strategic allies such as China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Still, the call for change in China was not as tough as some on Capitol Hill and among his conservative supporters might want, as it was accompanied by praise on several fronts.
Bush recognized that economic reforms have resulted in a better-housed, better-fed populace, and he lauded China's leadership in the effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons programs.
But while the president said China should allow people to worship without state control — a point he hoped to underscore by visiting an officially recognized church while in Beijing — Bush did not mention China's human rights record.
This careful dance reflects the diplomatic subtlety required with a nation that is a vast and growing market for American goods, has the world's largest standing army and is using its economic might to assert itself on the world stage.
"The Chinese are not going to like being scolded," Adam Segal, who studies China at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "But if they are of the mind to, they can read it with a positive spin."
Indeed, the response from Beijing was muted.
"Our common points outnumber our differences," said Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing.
Bush also lectured China about making additional economic reforms to correct an enormous trade imbalance, better protect the copyrights of American software and movies, and make greater progress toward a market-based currency.
Bush did not hold back on North Korea and Myanmar, two Asian nations that "still have not taken even the first steps toward freedom." He said the price of their "refusal to open up is isolation, backwardness, and brutality."
Bush's sleepover in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto was a reward for Koizumi, an unflinching ally who supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq by making an unpopular decision to send noncombat troops there in January 2004.
At a joint news conference Wednesday, Koizumi was noncommittal about whether he would extend that mission, which expires next month.
The two leaders glossed over lingering problems, including Tokyo's two-year-old ban on U.S. beef imports and a recent agreement on realigning U.S. military forces in the country.
Instead, they focused on friendship. Bush called Koizumi his "buddy" and gave him a Segway standup motorized scooter as a gift.
"There is no such thing as U.S.-Japan relationship too close," said Koizumi.