BANGKOK, Thailand — With all eyes on Beijing, President Bush bluntly told China that America stands in "firm opposition" to the way the communist government represses its own people, a rebuke delivered from the heart of Asia on the cusp of the Olympic Games.
Bush balanced his chiding with praise for China's market reforms and hope that it will embrace freedom, reflecting the delicate balance that Bush seeks to strike with the potent U.S. rival.
"We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labor rights not to antagonize China's leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential," Bush said in perhaps his last major Asia address.
"And we press for openness and justice not to impose our beliefs, but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs," the president said.
Bush's brought his message to Thailand, a turbulent democracy. The marquee speech of his three-country trip hailed deepening ties between the U.S. and Asia. He pledged that whoever follows him in the White House will inherit an alliance that is now stronger than ever.
The president planned to quickly pivot from his speech to a full day of outreach toward the people of Myanmar, also known as Burma, who live under military rule across the border.
Yet heading eagerly to the Beijing Olympics himself as a sports fan, Bush faced pressures all around: a desire not to embarrass China in its moment of glory, a call for strong words by those dismayed by China's repression, and a determination to remind the world that he has been pushing China to allow greater freedom during his presidency.
The White House released Bush's prepared remarks about 18 hours in advance, which had the buffer effect of putting a news cycle between his speech and his arrival in Beijing on Thursday.
But his message will surely be noted in China, which has already knocked Bush for intruding in its affairs by hosting Chinese dissidents at the White House ahead of the games.
"The leadership in Beijing will almost certainly find his comments irritating or objectionable," said Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "But they will clearly understand that the United States will not impose any real consequences if they do not make progress on human rights."
Seeking an event scrubbed free of protest, China has rounded up opponents and slapped restrictions on journalists, betraying promises made when China landed the hosting rights.
"America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates, and religious activists," Bush said. He tempered his remarks by saying China has the right to choose its own course.
"America and our partners are realistic, and we are prepared for any possibility," Bush said. "I am optimistic about China's future. Young people who grow up with the freedom to trade goods will ultimately demand the freedom to trade ideas."
The president added: "Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and traditions. Yet change will arrive."
Bush says he built a relationship with China's leaders that has built up honesty and candor and allowed him to have more influence. He cited examples of significant alliance over Taiwan, North Korea's nuclear program and shared economic concerns. He has also been adamant that the Olympics is not a time to pursue the U.S. political agenda.
Given his setting, Bush devoted a surprisingly small portion of his speech to Myanmar.
'End to tyranny'
One of the world's poorest countries, Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, when the latest junta came to power after brutally crushing a pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Mass street demonstrations, led by Buddhist monks, were again put down last September.
"Together, we seek an end to tyranny in Burma," Bush said. "This noble cause has many devoted champions, and I happen to be married to one of them."
First lady Laura Bush is an outspoken advocate for Myanmar, drawing attention to a southeast Asian nation unfamiliar to many Americans. On Thursday in Thailand she will visit a border refugee camp in Mae La, home to thousands of people who fled Myanmar's violence.
After his speech, Bush will visit Mercy Centre, which is based in Bangkok's largest slum and provides help to children living with HIV or AIDS.
Bush will also get an update on the recovery from the cyclone that devastated Myanmar's heartland and killed more than 80,000 people in May; have lunch with Burma activists; and do an interview with local radio journalists in hopes of influencing events across the border.
Allies in war
Bush heralds Thailand's democracy as alive and well, but it is deeply embattled.
Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's 6-month-old coalition government came to power in elections, but only after a bloodless coup against predecessor Thaksin Shinawatra.
Samak faces daily demonstrations demanding his resignation. He is accused of blocking corruption charges against Thaksin and trying to amend the constitution to cling onto power.
Though Samak regards himself as a friend of Myanmar's generals, Bush heaped praise on his Thai hosts when he arrived, calling them close allies in the war on terror.
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