WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite long insisting that sports and politics don't mix, U.S. President George W. Bush will have a hard time keeping them separate when he visits China this week for the Beijing Olympics.
He faces a delicate balancing act of depicting himself as just another sports fan cheering on his nation's team while nudging his communist hosts to clean up their human rights record.
On the ground in Beijing, Bush must weigh the risks of offending the sensibilities of an emerging -- and increasingly influential -- world power against demands by rights advocates, religious conservatives and leading lawmakers at home to be more forceful.
Plus, he will have to keep in mind that whatever he does on his farewell visit to China will not only become fodder for an intensifying U.S. presidential race but also have implications for his efforts to salvage his own foreign policy legacy.
"In contrast to often dismal diplomacy in other areas, Bush's handling of China, after a rough start, has had some sense of nuance and statecraft," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "The challenge now is to keep things on track."
Human rights groups had urged Bush to boycott Friday's opening ceremonies to protest China's crackdown in Tibet and what they see as Beijing's reneging on promises to broaden freedoms in the run-up to the Summer Games.
Bush refused, saying the Olympics were not a venue for making political points and staying away would be an affront to the Chinese people that would undercut his practice of discussing rights concerns privately with Chinese leaders.
But Bush's presence at the Games, a public relations coup for the Chinese in what they see as something of a international coming-out party, will be fraught with political symbolism reflecting his policy of quiet engagement.
The administration's low-key approach is built in part on growing recognition that it needs China's help to curb North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions, thus limiting U.S. leverage to press the one-party state for political reforms.
Washington is also mindful of Beijing's increasing economic clout. China, the world's third-largest economy, is not only a huge investor in U.S. securities but its cooperation is vital if Washington hopes to reduce its trade deficit with Beijing, which ballooned to a record $253 billion last year.
In a sign of the shifting balance of power, China asserted itself in a leading role at last month's failed world trade talks in Geneva.
China's rapid military build-up also has worried Washington, although less so as tensions over Taiwan have eased.
Given those concerns, Bush is expected to limit himself to politely prodding China's leadership on human rights when he visits Beijing starting on Thursday. He already has sent a pointed message by meeting with prominent Chinese dissidents at the White House and drawing a sharp rebuke from Beijing.
Human rights groups called it a good step but not enough.
"It is essential that you unambiguously speak out for human rights and meet with the families of jailed prisoners of conscience while you are in Beijing," Rep. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, said in a letter to the Republican president last week.
It remained unclear whether Bush would risk angering Beijing by meeting dissidents on Chinese soil. If so, his schedule seems flexible enough during his four-day stay, which will be devoted largely to sporting events, including a U.S.-China basketball game.
'WE RESPECT THEM'
Bush does plan to worship at a Beijing church next Sunday and afterward make a statement urging greater religious freedom, just before meeting President Hu Jintao. Aides have made clear, however, that he has no intention of embarrassing China's leadership with the eyes of the world on Beijing.
Bush avoided sensitive issues in an interview with Chinese state-run television last week, saying he wanted to "send a clear signal to the Chinese people that we respect them."
Likely to further ease Chinese concerns will be the presence of Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, U.S. envoy to Beijing in the 1970s. He has been widely seen as a moderating influence on his son's China policy.
Back home, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his Republican rival John McCain are expected to tread cautiously on China at party nominating conventions coming on the heels of the Beijing Olympics.
Both have recently been tougher than Bush in their criticism of China's rights record. But analysts say it is likely neither would deviate sharply from his approach once in office.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)