OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea -- On the final leg of his Asian trip, President Bush said Thursday that China, Japan and South Korea, are lending "steady and strong support" to the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Beginning his two-day trip to Beijing, Bush urged Chinese President Jiang Zemin to respect religious freedoms and consider the Vatican's plea to free Catholic bishops, sticking points in otherwise improving U.S.-Chinese relations. He said he hoped that Jiang, "as a president of a great nation, would understand the important role of religion in an individual's life."
Before leaving South Korea, Bush told several hundred fatigue-clad U.S. troops at Osan Air Base that despite their regional differences, the three Asian leaders he has met on his six-day tour are united in backing his coalition against the al-Qaida network and other terrorist groups.
"All three governments are lending their support in our war against terror," Bush said. Each stop of his journey, Bush said, gave him a chance "to look the leaders in the eye, to thank them on behalf of a grateful nation, for their steady and strong support as this nation leads a coalition to defend freedom."
With an American flag hanging behind him, Bush looked out at a panorama of young American faces and F-16 and F-15 fighter jets and U-2 spy planes parked nearby in a display of U.S. military might.
"You're here because you believe in America," he told the soldiers. "And America will always believe in you."
"We won't stop until the threat of global terrorism has been destroyed," Bush said.
China has provided the United States intelligence and other support in a war against terrorism that has helped to mute differences on other issues. Still, there are divisions.
In addition to human rights, Bush and Jiang are at odds over U.S. missile defense plans, the fate of Taiwan, nuclear proliferation, trade and the president's claim that North Korea, Iran and Iraq form "an axis of evil."
Yet their meetings are unlikely to be contentious, at least partly because of the new U.S.-China alliance against terrorism, according to White House aides and outside analysts.
"The president will raise the tough issues of religious freedom and proliferation, but the Chinese right now are thoroughly occupied with economic and political transformations, and Bush is preoccupied with the war," said Sandy Berger, national security adviser in the Clinton White House.
"They both want there to be calm water," he said.
Bush's visit comes on the 30th anniversary of the groundbreaking trip by President Nixon -- a milestone that ended a two-decade estrangement. While Nixon opened the door to China, Bush hopes to use the war on terrorism to develop a mature relationship in which differences can be resolved amicably.
Only a few months ago, administration officials feared relations with the world's most populous country were headed in the other direction. They cited China's emergence as a power rivaling the U.S. in Asia, the diplomatic confrontation in April over a downed U.S. spy plane and Beijing's determination to unify Taiwan.