WASHINGTON (AP) _ Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and President Bush are trying to strike a delicate balance on China, voicing displeasure with Beijing's crackdown on protests in Tibet without alienating a crucial economic and political partner.

Rudd, a China expert who wants stronger economic ties with Beijing, was making his first official visit to the White House on Friday as China faces continuing criticism over its handling of violent unrest by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule. Bush appealed this week directly to Chinese President Hu Jintao over Beijing's actions in Tibet and western China.

Both Rudd and Bush, however, recognize that they need China, a growing military and economic powerhouse in Asia and a veto-holding member of the U.N. Security Council. Rudd is eager to conclude a free trade agreement with Australia's most important trading power, while Bush is counting on China for help in dealing with North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs.

Rudd, a Chinese-speaking former diplomat in Beijing, is seen in Washington as a "solidly pro-U.S. alliance figure," said Michael Green, Bush's former senior adviser on Asia.

"The one area where people have raised eyebrows about Rudd is on China policy," said Green, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "When he's here, he's going to want to make it clear that the U.S. alliance remains the bedrock and Australia is not going wobbly on China."

Rudd has said disagreement over Tibet would not stand in the way of Australia's economic relations with China, which has shown a strong demand for Australia's natural resources. Rudd says he will use a trip early next month to China to urge officials to step up their negotiating efforts on a free trade pact.

The Tibet protests, led by Buddhist monks, began peacefully March 10 on the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Tibet had been effectively independent for decades before Chinese communist troops entered in 1950. Beijing says 22 people have died in this month's protests; Tibetan exiles say almost 140 are dead.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in a brief interview Thursday that he has seen concern expressed in Asia that, because of the events in Tibet, "Mr. Rudd might find himself in an awkward position" as he works to develop closer China ties.

"I don't think so," Armitage said. "I think he will always do the right thing."

Rudd, in his meeting with Bush, is likely to emphasize that Australia will not shrink its 1,000-soldier deployment to Afghanistan, even as it withdraws its 550 combat troops from Iraq. Australia says hundreds of others will stay in Iraq in supporting roles.

Australian officials have been keen to note that the Iraq withdrawal will not hurt the relationship with the U.S., which they have called indispensable to Australian security.

Speaking ahead of Rudd's visit, Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said the two leaders must make it clear that their countries' relationship, "which has been so important to both sides, is strong and will endure under new leadership in Australia."

Hadley avoided answering a question about whether there would be any "arm twisting" for more Australian troops to support U.S. war efforts. "Australia has been a terrific partner," he said.

Still, Rudd has distanced his government from the pro-U.S. policies of his immediate predecessor, John Howard, who celebrated his close friendship with Bush. The victory for Rudd's center-left Labor Party in November moved Australia to the political left after 12 years of conservative rule, and his first official act as leader was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol global warming pact. That left the U.S. isolated as a holdout among developed nations.

Rudd has said he hopes the U.S. would follow his lead and sign the pact. Bush has said the accord would harm the U.S. economy.

On the Net:

Kevin Rudd: http://www.alp.org.au/people/qld/rudd(underscore)kevin.php

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.