Bush Makes Final Stop on Asia Visit
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
President Bush is on his way home from Asia. His last stop was in Mongolia, where he thanked Mongolians for their contribution to the war in Iraq and praised Mongolia's reforms.
(Soundbite of applause)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Mongolia's made the transition from communism to freedom, and in just 15 years, you've established a vibrant democracy and opened up your economy. You're an example of success for this region and for the world.
INSKEEP: The president also traveled to Japan, South Korea and China. NPR White House correspondent David Greene is traveling along.
DAVID GREENE reporting:
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the president's Asian swing is that Iraq became the dominant story on a trip that was supposed to focus on combatting bird flu and pushing free trade. On Mr. Bush's stop in South Korea, the host government stunned the White House when it started talking about bringing 1,000 troops home from Iraq, not the headline the president wanted while visiting. And Mr. Bush was pulled into the bitter debate over Iraq back in Washington. The White House blasted its war critics back home all week, but yesterday in China, Mr. Bush took a softer approach as he fended off accusations that the White House is labeling its critics unpatriotic.
Pres. BUSH: People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq. I heard somebody say, `Well, maybe so-and-so's not patriotic because they disagree with my position.' I totally reject that thought.
GREENE: Mr. Bush's stop in China brought other surprises. The president spoke to Chinese President Hu Jintao about granting more individual rights to his citizens, but just as he made his case, reports surfaced in Beijing that the Chinese government had cracked down on political dissidents leading up to Mr. Bush's arrival. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters the president was not going to ignore the reports while in town.
Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): We have heard reports and we have raised them with the Chinese government and we'll raise them quite vociferously with the Chinese government to both get a clarification and to make clear that we believe open societies allow people to express themselves.
GREENE: President Hu said after his meeting with Mr. Bush that he's committed to expanding human rights. He offered no timetable, but White House officials said the public statement was important. But when Mr. Bush came out to deliver a statement after his sit-down with Hu, he didn't exactly sound excited about the meeting, as he talked about their discussions on energy.
Pres. BUSH: China's a growing economy...
Unidentified Man: (Chinese spoken)
Pres. BUSH: ...and China recognizes, like the United States recognizes, in order to keep our economies growing in the years to come, we've got to share technologies and diversify away from hydrocarbons.
GREENE: Later, Mr. Bush went for a ride on his mountain bike outside Beijing. Then he took some questions from reporters. Ken Herman of Cox Newspapers asked him about his seeming lack of enthusiasm and about whether something in his meeting with President Hu had bothered him.
Pres. BUSH: Most of the time...
Mr. KEN HERMAN (Cox Newspapers): ...segments this morning with President Hu, you seemed a little off your game. You seemed to hurry through your statement. There was a lack of enthusiasm...
Pres. BUSH: When? Here, right now?
Mr. HERMAN: No, this morning with President Hu. Was something bothering you or...
Pres. BUSH: Have you ever heard of jet lag?
Mr. HERMAN: Yes, sir.
Pres. BUSH: Well, good. That answers your question.
Mr. HERMAN: You know, something he said, I mean...
Pres. BUSH: No, not at all. Listen, the relationship with China is a good, vibrant, strong relationship.
GREENE: If the president had a delicate diplomatic dance in China, his visit to Mongolia was more about ceremony. This is the land of Genghis Khan, a rugged nation sandwiched between China and Russia that has never received a sitting US president. Mr. Bush said Mongolia's 120 soldiers in Iraq are serving with courage and distinction. The White House has played up that Mongolia is the third largest contributor of troops in Iraq, if you're talking per capita. David Greene, NPR News, Ulan Bator, Mongolia.