Bush travels to Asia for talks, Olympics

Other News Materials 4 August 2008 11:42 (UTC +04:00)

U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Beijing almost looks like a vacation -- right down to a family reunion. But his three-nation Asian trip also takes him to the doorsteps of two troublesome regimes while forcing him to balance the Olympic spirit with the delicacies of diplomacy, reported dpa.

Major initiatives are unlikely during the Bush tour of Asia.

It will be mostly business as Bush leaves Monday for the trip. First, he will have a one-day stop in Seoul to meet with President Lee Myung-bak. Getting North Korea to live up to its promise to continue dismantling its nuclear weapons program will be high on the agenda.

Then comes a day in Bangkok, where the mood will generally be celebratory as the two countries mark 175 years of bilateral relations.

Bush also will deliver a speech on his hopes for American foreign policy in Asia when he departs the White House in January. He denies any suggestion the region has gotten short shrift with America's focus on Iraq and Afghanistan and claims relations "have never been better" with China, Japan and South Korea.

Still, with the presidential election only three months away, major initiatives are unlikely.

"The speech will be a formality about the U.S. engagement with Asia, especially on security and economic engagement," said Professor Chaiwat Khamchoo of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"America has three key words: promote democracy, security and the economy in Asia. Protocol-wise, he cannot declare any significant policies since this is his last speech" of his administration on Asia.

Bush told foreign journalists last week that he will have a message directed at the people of Myanmar as he meets with Burmese activists. U.S. first lady Laura Bush, a vocal critic of the military regime in Thailand's neighbor, plans to visit a refugee camp near the Myanmar border.  Watch an exclusive CNN.com report on Myanmar refugees "

Then comes a little break to be a fan at the Olympics, where the president will attend the opening ceremonies. His wife, brother and one of his daughters are going along, and they'll meet his father and sister in Beijing.

The 62-year-old president, who says he's "sprinting" to a strong finish to his term, plans to do a little of that literally. In an echo of his first trip to China in 1975 with his father, when he says he spent his time bicycling around Beijing, he said he hopes to take a spin on the Olympics mountain bike course.

Bush has been an unwavering supporter of the Beijing Olympics, agreeing nearly a year ago to attend and sticking to his decision despite calls to stay away to protest China's rights lapses or its rule over Tibet.

Aside from cheering on U.S. athletes -- he's keen to attend the U.S.-China men's basketball match, which starts past his usual bedtime -- it isn't clear how much time Bush will get to discuss Iran, North Korea or trade friction with a Chinese leadership busy with the Olympics and entertaining 80 other foreign dignitaries.

China's government reacted icily after Bush met with high-profile Chinese dissidents in the White House and Congress passed a resolution critical of China's human rights record.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao demanded the U.S. "stop interfering in China's internal affairs under the pretext of human rights and religious issues and avoid damage to China-U.S. relations."

During his four-day stay, Bush will lunch and parlay with President Hu Jintao, with whom Bush has developed a workmanlike relationship, calling him "a straightforward guy."

Bush is also seeking to use his stop to press one of his favorite issues: religious freedom. He will attend Sunday services at a government-approved Christian church and meet with its pastor, who once sent Bush a Bible to replace one the president lost on a 2005 trip to China.

In South Korea, Bush will meet with President Lee Myung-bak, whose attempts to foster goodwill with Washington by allowing resumed imports of U.S. beef sparked weeks of raucous anti-government protests over mad cow fears.

Lee replaced top advisers and fired a few ministers, and also negotiated more safeguards for the imports. The protests grew to encompass a range of grievances against what was seen as Lee's heavy-handed policies, but have largely dwindled recently.

Still, groups who organized the earlier rallies say they plan to gather in central Seoul again on the evening that Bush arrives.

The two presidents were expected to reaffirm their will for the countries' legislatures to approve a pending free-trade agreement, which would be the largest for the United States since NAFTA. However, congressional approval appears bleak in an election year, and the South Korean parliament also has been slow to take action.