HONG KONG — As the world prepares to bid farewell to U.S. President George W. Bush in a few months, his foreign policy lies in tatters. Wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, a crisis looms in Iran, relations with Russia are badly strained, and now North Korea is threatening to restart its nuclear-weapons program.
There is one bright spot: China. Despite a rough start at the beginning of his presidency when there was a crisis triggered by a midair collision between a Chinese fighter jet and an American reconnaissance plane, Bush has by and large enjoyed a good relationship with the Chinese leadership.
This was reflected in the telephone conversation last Monday between the two leaders, when Bush briefed his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, on the financial upheavals in the United States and Hu praised the “good momentum of the development of Sino-U.S. ties.”
To be sure, there were repeated differences over political freedom, religious rights, Tibet and other issues, but Beijing continues to view Bush favorably. Beijing also has a soft spot in its heart for his father, George Herbert Walker Bush (president 1989-1993).
The junior Bush campaigned in 2000 on the premise that the Clinton administration was wrong to designate China as a strategic partner. He said China was a strategic competitor, not a partner. And he began office with the idea that China would replace the Soviet Union as America’s main antagonist.
But his stance changed dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. when he realized that America already had enemies at its gates and that China could be a partner in the campaign against terrorists.
Although he declared at the end of his first 100 days in office that he would do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself, he soon made clear his distaste for Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian by reprimanding him in public while Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stood next to him.
To Beijing, Bush has been a true friend and, more than that, a known quantity. True, Bush frequently did things that Beijing did not like, including receiving the Dalai Lama three times, and frequently lecturing the Chinese government on freedom and democracy.
He was also someone Beijing could count on. Earlier this year, when much of the world called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics over the crackdown following violent protests in Tibet, the U.S. leader never wavered in his commitment to attend the games, an attitude much appreciated by Chinese leaders.
In part for domestic political reasons, Bush, before each trip to China, used to make a public gesture that was critical of China. In 2005, the day before he left for an Asian trip that included Beijing, he received the Dalai Lama and accepted a white scarf from him. Then, in Japan, he went out of his way to praise Taiwan for “embracing freedom at all levels” and urged China to emulate the island that it considers to be a breakaway province.
Although the Chinese foreign ministry, as expected, issued a rebuttal, Bush was still warmly welcomed in Beijing.
Last month the president made what was probably his last official visit to Beijing, and again he gave a speech critical of China while traveling in Asia, this time in Thailand. Significantly, at the end of this visit, China’s official newspaper the People’s Daily published an evaluation of China by the senior Bush, who was also in Beijing as honorary head of the American Olympics delegation.
Bush senior said that, in his view, China’s economic growth since the 1970s, when he was unofficial ambassador, has improved the living conditions of the Chinese people as well as advanced human rights and individual freedoms; Chinese leaders are now more open and approachable; and the strategic and economic interests of China and the U.S. are growing ever closer.
Turning to the president, the People’s Daily said that of course Bush does not completely agree with China’s political actions, pointing out that he had criticized China while in Bangkok and that “China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Bush’s words were unacceptable interference in China’s internal affairs.”
But it concluded, “It is very important for national leaders to build good mutual friendships, although one cannot equate personal friendships with supporting all policies made by other leaders.”
To China, it is clear, Bush is a friend.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org).