BEIJING – Exactly 30 years after President Nixon's historic visit to China, President Bush thanked this nation for its anti-terrorism solidarity and promised a "steady partner" in America. But even as Bush hoped Beijing could peacefully steer North Korea from its menacing ways, he failed to persuade China to stop its own trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.
"Terrorism is a threat to both our countries," Bush said at a news conference following 90 minutes of talks with President Jiang Zemin on Thursday.
"I welcome China's cooperation in our war against terror. I encourage China to continue to be a force for peace among its neighbors," Bush said.
On the last leg of his three-nation Asian tour, Bush had hoped to win China's agreement on halting the sale of missile and nuclear technology to Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and other nations. Iran and North Korea, along with Iraq, make up the "axis of evil" that Bush has targeted for the next phase of his drive to wipe out terrorism.
Instead, Bush and Jiang emerged from their closed-door meetings in the Great Hall of the People with warm praise for how far U.S.-China relations have come since Nixon's first visit in 1972 — and for the strengthened partnership the two countries forged after last fall's terror attacks on the United States.
Jiang broadly promised to "step up consultation and cooperation" in the campaign against terrorism.
Both presidents glossed over the impasse on weapons sales and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters that while there's no agreement yet, "that work is under way."
"It is natural for China and the United States to disagree on some issues," Jiang said. "As long as the two sides act in a spirit of mutual respect, equality and seeking common ground, ... we will be able to gradually narrow our differences."
Said Bush: "My government hopes that China will strongly oppose the proliferation of missiles and other deadly technologies."
With Jiang at his side, Bush said he asked his Chinese counterpart to help him make contact with Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea, and impress upon him that the United States is serious about its offer to sit down for talks.
"We would be willing to meet with the North Korean regime, and I asked his help in conveying that message," Bush said. "If he speaks to the leader of North Korea, he can assure him I am sincere in my desire to have our folks meet."
Bush, who flew here from the divided Korean peninsula, where he visited the hostile border between North and South, said China can make sure that the anti-terror campaign, as it plays out in North Korea, will be a peaceful one.
"Not every theater in the war against terror need be resolved with force," Bush said. "Some theaters can be resolved through diplomacy and dialogue, and the Chinese government can be very helpful."
Jiang stonewalled queries from two American reporters about his government's repression of religion — particularly the detention of Catholic bishops — and his opinion of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Jiang refused at first to answer either question, but returned to them at the end of the news conference.
While Bush listened intently, Jiang said he has read the Bible, the Koran and the scriptures of Buddhism, even though he said he ascribes to no religion himself. Those who were imprisoned, he said, were detained "because they broke the law, not because of their religious beliefs. I have no right interfering in judicial affairs."
The Chinese leader shrugged off his earlier deflections, saying: "When it comes to meeting the press, I think President Bush is much more experienced."
As Jiang struggled with the issues, Bush winked knowingly at the U.S. delegation and fought back a grin.
Regarding Iraq — which could become a target of the U.S. war against terror — Jiang said peace is "the important thing."
Bush tried to gently press Jiang on human rights and civil liberties, saying, "All the world's people, including the people of China, should be free to choose how they live, how they worship and how they work."
In the streets outside the Great Hall, where Tiananmen Square was closed to pedestrians while the presidents' met inside, Bush's visit did not appear to stir much interest among the Chinese — a metaphor, perhaps, for the 30-year warming of Sino-American relations.
"In old days, we'd all line the streets from the airport, waving flags, and it was just a fake welcome," said a businessman who gave only his family name, Pan.
Bush and Jiang agreed to meet again in the United States next fall. And Chinese vice president Hu Jintao, heir apparent to the presidency here, will meet in Washington with Vice President Dick Cheney. Bush plans to meet Hu briefly on Friday at Tsinghua University, where the vice president was introducing Bush to students.
After his speech at the university — a speech that the Chinese government has promised to broadcast nationwide on state TV — Bush and his wife, Laura, were venturing to China's must-see tourist attraction, the Great Wall, and then flying home.