- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

BANGKOK | President Bush chided China over its human rights record Thursday in remarks that are likely to embarrass his hosts in Thailand, a close ally of Beijing.

“America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” Mr. Bush said.

“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.

“And we press for openness and justice not to impose our beliefs, but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs,” Mr. Bush said.

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The White House on Wednesday released the text of the speech, a wide-ranging address that aides have billed as an Asia policy statement, in an apparent attempt to buffer its impact before Mr. Bush travels to Beijing on Thursday for the Olympics.

Mr. Bush faced 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 quietly urging China to allow greater freedom during his presidency.

“America and our partners are realistic, and we are prepared for any possibility,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Bush said he built a relationship with China’s leaders that has increased honesty and candor and allowed him to have more influence.

He cited examples of significant Sino-U.S. cooperation over Taiwan, North Korea’s nuclear program and shared economic concerns. He also has been adamant that the Olympics is not a time to pursue the U.S. political agenda.

Given his setting, Mr. Bush devoted a surprisingly small portion of his speech to Burma.

He is scheduled to meet with Burmese activists in the U.S. ambassador’s residence and be interviewed for a radio station that broadcasts into Burma.

First lady Laura Bush, an outspoken advocate for human rights in Burma, was scheduled to travel west to the Thailand-Burma border and meet people working with Burmese refugees.

Mr. Bush on Thursday is also scheduled to visit the Mercy Center, a slum-based group of schools, AIDS hospices, orphanages and medical clinics in Bangkok run by a high-profile American Catholic priest, the Rev. Joe Maier.

The Bushes were welcomed by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who won an election in December after voters turned against military leaders who seized power in a bloodless September 2006 coup.

It was not clear how Mr. Bush’s remarks would be received by his host in Bangkok. During brief remarks Wednesday with Mr. Bush, Mr. Samak spoke of how the “two countries share a long and special connection.”

Mr. Samak, who also enjoys close relations with Beijing, was in China for a visit early last month and will return to the Chinese capital for the opening of the Olympic Games.

Also in July, Chinese and Thai special forces participated in a joint counterterrorism training exercise in northern Thailand that was described by the Chinese news agency Xinhua as an attempt to “deepen understanding, cement cooperation in non-traditional security areas, and safeguard regional peace and stability.”

Thailand has sought to balance its relations with China and the U.S., celebrating 175 years of diplomatic relations with the U.S. during the two-day visit by the president and Mrs. Bush.

But Bangkok has also maintained steady relations with China through the coup and the recent government instability, with Beijing embracing the military leaders in the face of U.S. criticism.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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