WASHINGTON — President Bush, in his first public comment on the lifting of martial law in Beijing, today called China's move a sound step that would contribute to human rights in the Asian superpower.
"I view the lifting of martial law as a very sound step. For those who are interested in human rights and the reform that was on the move--and we'd all like to go forward--there's no way you can look at that and say it's not positive," Bush told reporters.
The United States had said lifting martial law was one step China should take to help normalize relations between the two countries that were badly damaged after Chinese troops massacred pro-democracy demonstrators last June in Tian An Men Square.
A number of U.S. congressmen and private analysts contend lifting martial law is a minor gesture that does not end Beijing's capacity for repression against its citizens. The State Department has admitted it did not fully understand what the decision to lift martial law means.
Speaking at a picture-taking session with Portuguese Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva, Bush said he considered the Chinese move a "good sign."
"We will continue to watch this situation very closely," he said. "I've taken a position that I do not want to isolate China by no contacts and set the clock back."
The State Department declined to spell out today what other steps the United States would like to see China take to protect and expand freedoms.
Spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, under questioning by reporters, also declined to cite proof that China was not selling missiles to Syria and other Middle East countries.
She noted Beijing's recent statement rejecting as "utterly groundless" press reports of plans to sell M-9 missiles to Syria and said:
"We take these public comments at face value. We expect Chinese arms sales policy to be conducted in accordance with these standards."
The Chinese statement referred specifically to medium-range missiles and there was some question whether this would leave open the possibility of sales of short-range missiles.
An Arabic-language newspaper in London this week said Syria had received official assurances from China of its commitment to military cooperation.
Bush has come under sharp attack for secretly sending National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to meet with Chinese leaders in July, one month after their bloody crackdown on demonstrators.