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Bush tried on Asian swing to buck up Japan, soothe ruffled feathers in China, Korea

WASHINGTON (AP) _ On his presidential tour of Asia, President Bush pushed Japan to get its economy in order, reassured South Koreans he's not about to make war on their peninsula and nudged forward the tentative U.S.-China partnership forged after Sept. 11.

One hitch: He may well have to do it over again in a matter of months.

This time next year, South Korea's Kim Dae-jung and China's Jiang Zemin will be closing out their presidential terms.

Also, despite Bush's warm embrace of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi this week, administration officials privately acknowledge they don't know if he can hold on to power, given disintegrating public confidence in his ability to right the Japanese economy.

That uncertainty was most obvious on the second day of the president's weeklong Asian tour. In a speech to the Japanese parliament, Bush's statement about Koizumi putting Japan firmly on the path to economic reform was met with a rumble of derisive chuckles by Japanese lawmakers.

``It's just the way it is in this world. People turn over and you have to deal with the leaders that are there,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell said aboard Air Force One on Bush's flight home Friday.

The coming turnover in Asian politics is especially significant given that on his tour Bush enlisted Koizumi, whose country maintains relations with Iran; and Jiang, head of one of the few governments in the world on good terms with North Korea, to act as back-channel conduits for the United States' anti-terrorism and anti-proliferation demands.

Because Bush conducts foreign policy mainly through personal rapport, he already has started preparations for at least one new face.

In China, he met briefly with Jiang's heir apparent, Vice President Hu Jintao, also scheduled to come to Washington to meet with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Jiang, expected to retire as secretary-general of the Communist Party before his presidential term ends next year, has given no indication when he'll relinquish his third and most powerful position, chairman of the Central Military Commission.

And so Bush, who wants the Chinese to help talk North Korea out of the missile-trafficking business, continues to court Jiang. Bush invited the Chinese leader to the United States for a fall meeting, but it remains unclear whether this will take place at Bush's Texas ranch, as Jiang not-so-secretly desires.

While in Seoul, South Korea, Bush did not meet with the leading contender to succeed President Kim, opposition leader Lee Hoi-chang. But Bush and Lee already are in sync on North Korea as both emphasize a ``get tough'' approach over Kim's ``be nice'' policy.

As for Kim, Bush tried to soothe Korean anxieties about what the aggressive ``axis of evil'' talk might mean for peace on the Korean peninsula. He did so in a small meeting _ the two leaders plus three advisers on each side _ that never expanded, as scheduled, to include the rest of the delegations.

``It was so good that we didn't want to go into the meeting room where there was more people,'' Bush said. ``That's important, when you're friends, to be able to discuss issues in depth.''

Paik Jin-hyon, a political science professor at Seoul National University, said Bush has more work to do to convince the North Koreans that he's open to dialogue on the communist state's spread of weapons of mass destruction.

``In North Korea's eyes, Bush's proposal for unconditional talks is laced with many conditions such as a resolution of missile and other problems. So, it is fair to say this is only the beginning of a process,'' said Paik.

Jiang made no outright commitment to be a conduit for this process; but in a joint news conference, Bush credited him with ``constructive leadership'' in urging North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in October to reach out to South Korea.

On human rights, advisers said Bush, in two visits with Jiang to date, has spent considerable time explaining how his personal faith has been important to him. In this way, the president hoped the Chinese leader would end Beijing's repression of religion.

By all evidence, Jiang has not budged. He called the 50 or so Roman Catholic bishops in Chinese detention ``lawbreakers.'' He also was nowhere near ready to make a deal on weapons proliferation, an issue that Powell called ``an irritation in the relationship.''
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