US President George W. Bush's recent visit to Beijing demonstrates both evolution and continuity in his policy toward China.
The president has recognized the need to tone down his sharp rhetoric, engage Chinese leaders directly and increase consultations with senior Chinese officials on a broad range of issues.
Yet at the same time, Bush remains firm in his commitment to promoting democracy, religious freedom and the rule of law in the world's most populous country. He is also unwavering in his support of the US pledge to provide aid for Taiwan's defense.
Bush has long since abandoned the tough rhetoric he relied on during his campaign and early months in office. Instead of portraying China as a "strategic competitor," the phrase favored by candidate Bush and his foreign policy advisers, the president has endorsed the pursuit of a "constructive, cooperative and candid" relationship with China. He has also realized the importance of treating the Chinese with respect and of acknowledging Beijing's progress in developing the Chinese economy and in improving its people's standard of living.
During his 30-hour stay last month in the Chinese capital, the president publicly expressed admiration for China's "amazing progress" and described Beijing's successful bid to play host to the 2008 Olympics as a wonderful opportunity for China to enhance its international image. After visiting a bus engine factory, he praised the city of Beijing for owning one of the largest natural-gas bus fleets in the world.
This positive portrayal of China's accomplishments is a departure from Bush's depiction of China during the campaign. In a Nov. 19, 1999, speech on foreign affairs, candidate Bush referred to China's conduct as "alarming abroad and appalling at home." He described China's government as "a sponsor of forced abortion and an enemy of religious freedom" and an "espionage threat to our country." These strident views were conspicuously absent from Bush's public statements in Beijing last month.
In his speech to Chinese students at Qinghua University, Bush remained true to his long-standing vow to advance freedom and democracy in China. He urged the nation's future leaders to tolerate dissent and build a society based on the rule of law. In private sessions with Chinese President Jiang Zemin (江澤民), Bush reaffirmed Washington's one-China policy, but he also asserted his insistence that Beijing rely on peaceful means in its quest for reunification with Taiwan. He also reiterated his commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act, which obligates the US to sell sufficient arms to Taiwan to defend itself.
Although Bush has not embraced China as a "strategic partner" as did former president Bill Clinton, he has nevertheless come around to recognizing the value of engaging China, rather than confronting it. In doing so, he followed in the steps of former presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Clinton, who, regardless of their starting points, eventually adopted a policy of engagement aimed at integrating China into the world community and promoting adherence by China to international norms.
The shift in Bush's approach, however, is primarily one of tone and process; it does not signal a fundamental transformation of the president's view of China. He retains an abiding belief that only a free and democratic China will be a responsible international player and will not pose a threat to its neighbors. He also maintains a strong faith in free trade as an ally in what Reagan termed "a forward strategy for freedom."