White House officials spoke of the imminence of a "framework agreement" that would set a "firmer timeline" for China's accession to the WTO, but obstacles remained - not least increasingly vocal suspicions from the US political right of China's intentions.
Mr Zhu's visit - the first official visit by a Chinese prime minister for 15 years - has become entangled with a spate of allegations about Chinese nuclear espionage and the renewal of allegations that China tried illegally to channel funds to the Clinton-Gore campaign for the last presidential election. The New York Times yesterday cited intelligence reports that China had stolen secrets that had enabled it to improve its neutron bomb technology. The leak, according to the paper, took place in 1995 - so contradicting the administration's insistence that there have been no thefts of secrets by China in Mr Clinton's time.
The neutron bomb allegation came hard on the heels of a two-month-old spy scandal about the alleged theft from the national laboratory at Los Alamos of nuclear secrets, which allegedly enabled China to develop miniaturised nuclear warheads. These allegations, which are the subject of four investigations, have so far resulted in the dismissal of one senior scientist and - only this week - the shutting down of computers at nuclear research centres for security checks.
Such was the hostility being whipped up around Mr Zhu's visit that Mr Clinton scheduled an address on the eve of the visit to lecture his opponents about the risks of alienating China and to warn against making relations with China a party political issue.
"As the next presidential election approaches," he said, "we cannot allow a healthy argument to lead us towards a campaign-driven cold war with China. This would have tragic consequences: an America riven by mistrust and bitter accusations, an end to diplomatic contacts that have produced tangible gains for our people, a climate of mistrust that hurts Chinese- Americans and undermines the exchanges that are opening China to the world."
While echoing the defence of US rapprochement with China, which he had delivered on the eve of the Chinese President's visit to Washington last year, Mr Clinton sounded a more urgent note about not making an enemy of China.
That may have reflected White House worries about being at odds with Russia and China at the same time. The diplomatic fall-out for US-Russian relations from Nato's military action over Kosovo has yet to be fully gauged, but Mr Clinton went out of his way yesterday at the official welcoming ceremony to thank Mr Zhu - twice - for proceeding with his visit, which had been in doubt after Peking joined criticism of Nato's military action.Reuse content