Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji met with President Clinton at the White House Thursday. Zhu then engaged in a good-humored but unyielding give-and-take with reporters at a joint news conference that covered topics from trade to human rights, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante.
Zhu denied that China's spies have stolen secrets from American research laboratories. "It is not the policy of China to steal so-called military secrets from the United States," he said, adding pointedly, "Don't underestimate the ability of the Chinese people to develop their own technology."
Yet even on the day of the talks, The New York Times, citing unidentified U.S. officials, reported that U.S. intelligence suggests that China improved its neutron bomb technology with military secrets stolen in 1995 from the United States.
Zhu vowed that China would cooperate in U.S. investigations of nuclear-weapons spying and illegal campaign contributions by Beijing "no matter who it may involve."
On the thorny issue of human rights, Mr. Clinton noted that the situation in China has gotten worse. Zhu admitted there was room for improvement, but repeated the familiar argument that other nations should not interfere with China's internal affairs.
"It is troubling that in the past year China has taken some steps backward on human rights and arrested people" for expressing their views, Mr. Clinton said, calling on China to give greater latitude to the Dalai Lama.
Zhu gave short shrift to such talk. "President Clinton mentioned all of this in his opening remarks. I think we have enough time to argue about these questions, so I don't want to delve into them now," he said.
But when talk turned to Taiwan, Zhu invoked Abraham Lincoln as a "model" to justify China's policy of refusing to rule out military force to reunite with that island.
"Abraham Lincoln, in order to maintain the unity of the United States and oppose the independence of the southern part, resorted to the use of force and fought a war for that, for maintaining the unity of the United States," he said.
Mr. Clinton stood by, a bemused expression on his face, as he heard his Chinese guest's words translated into English.
The two leaders claimed important progress on the contentious issue of trade, even though they failed to agree on a market-opening deal that would have cleared the way for China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
Clinton's economic adviser, Gene Sperling, said China made "significant movement and concessions" and the two countries hoped to reach a final agreement by year's end.
China and the U.S. did reach agreement on a farm trade pact, effective immediately, which will remove barriers to the import of American beef, wheat and citrus.
Although settling farm trade issues probably will help build support in the agricultural community for China's WTO entry, Mr. Clinton facs an uphill battle with critical Republicans in Congress.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott warned Mr. Clinton not to go ahead with a China trade deal now.
Â"Letting China into the WTO at this time shows how far this administration is willing to go in an effort to salvage its failed policy of strategic partnership with China,Â" Lott said in a statement.
The premierÂ's nine-day, six-city tour of the United States, which began Tuesday, is the first visit by a Chinese leader in 15 years.