EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, August 5 – US President George W. Bush made a stopover here on his way to South Korea and Thailand, before attending the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony clouded by concerns over China’s human rights record.,
Bush was headed first to South Korea and Thailand, and will go to the Olympics’ opening ceremony on August 8 after rejecting repeated calls by activists to boycott the Games over human rights concerns.
On the way to Seoul, Bush stopped at Eielson Air Force Base where he talked to US troops, thanking them for their service to the country.
"I made a decision not to politicize the Games; this is for athletics," Bush, who will be in China August 7-11 to attend the Beijing Olympics, said on Wednesday. "There’s plenty of time for politics, and I’m confident I’ll have time for politics."
A sports fanatic, Bush will attend a basketball game between the star-studded US team and China. His schedule is unusually flexible, apparently to allow him to follow competitions.
But with the world’s eyes watching the Olympics, human rights groups and US lawmakers hope the US president will push Chinese leaders to give more freedom to their people.
Bush has insisted that he raises the human rights question every time he speaks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and the two are scheduled to hold talks.
During his visit to Beijing, Bush plans to make public remarks on religious freedom after attending a Christian service. The administration has not ruled out the possibility of a meeting with dissidents in China.
Bush, who has acknowledged that US-Chinese relations are complex, treads a delicate diplomatic tightrope with the Asian powerhouse.
The United States is increasingly dependent on China to reduce a 21 billion dollar bilateral trade deficit, take down international trade barriers, convince North Korea to give up nuclear weapons and combat global warming.
Even a visit to South Korea, where Bush will be on Tuesday and Wednesday, has not escaped controversy.
The South Korean government of President Lee Myung-Bak had faced mass protests over its decision to lift an embargo on US beef imports introduced in 2003 following cases of mad cow disease in the United States.
To make matters worse, a small US government organization, the Board on Geographic Names, recently changed its classification of a chain of islets disputed by Seoul and Tokyo from a territory of South Korea to "undesignated sovereignty."
At Bush’s instruction, the board last week reversed its decision and reclassified the islets as a territory of South Korea.
Dennis Wilder, a top Bush aide on Asian affairs, said South Korean imports of American beef "are going well, as far as we can tell." He believed the controversy will recede as more US beef enters the South Korean market.
The island controversy however "certainly didn’t enhance the atmosphere for the visit," but the president had demonstrated leadership on this matter, said Wilder, speaking aboard Air Force Once on the way to Alaska.
Bush and Lee are expected to discuss a "21st century strategic alliance" as well as efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons drive via six-nation talks.
They would also look into the fate of a free trade agreement already signed by the two governments but awaiting approval of their legislatures.
The lifting of the beef embargo removed one of the obstacles on the way toward ratification by the US Congress of the free trade pact, but the approval of the pact was far from assured.
"I’ve told the president I make no promises, except I’ll push as hard as I possibly can to get it done before I leave the presidency," Bush told South Korean television in an interview.
The US president’s ninth trip to Asia will coincide with the final days of a key date in efforts to disarm North Korea.
Bush announced in June his intention to remove North Korea from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism in 45 days, a timeline that ends August 11.
The administration however said the communist regime could not be removed from the list unless it agrees to a comprehensive protocol verifying its atomic program.
"We are hopeful that we will be able to reach an understanding with the North Koreans, but we’re not at that juncture yet," Wilder said, adding that August 11 "is the opening of the window for this; it is not a deadline."
Wilder also said that Bush and Lee would talk about the human rights situation in North Korea, as well as the role of South Korea’s military in places like Iraq where there are some 650 soldiers and Afghanistan.
"I think the South Korean military can really be an enabler to democracy in other areas," said Wilder. "Obviously we’d like to see a greater role for South Koreans in Afghanistan, if the South Korean people are willing to move in that direction. But I think that is going to be at the heart of their discussion."