In a speech to United States sinologists at the National Geographic building in Washington yesterday, Mr Clinton said he was making the first presidential visit to China for a decade "because I think it's the right thing to do for our country". He will be in China and Hong Kong from 25 June to 3 July.
The President went out of his way to justify his decision to attend an official welcoming ceremony on Tiananmen Square in Peking, just over nine years after China caused international outrage by sending in troops to crush the pro-democracy protest there.
Answering critics who say that his very presence in Tiananmen Square will signal to China that the killings of 1989 have been forgiven and forgotten, Mr Clinton said: "Protocol should not be confused with principle ... If there is a choice between making a symbolic point and making a difference, I choose the difference."
Mr Clinton has faced pressure from exiled Chinese dissidents and US human rights campaigners to cancel the welcoming ceremony, if not the trip, and send a wreath instead in memory of those who died.
Participation in an official welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, which is on the edge of the square, is protocol for all official visitors to China and is believed to have been a condition set by the Chinese for Mr Clinton's visit.
Addressing another issue of acute sensitivity in Washington, Mr Clinton also defended his authorisation of US sales to China of satellite technology and the use of Chinese launch-sites for American satellites. US satellites were in great demand internationally, he said, and the US had far too little launch-capacity for all of them.
But he insisted that US security interests were fully protected at Chinese sites. Mr Clinton did not, however, respond to claims that at least one US company was exempted from usual security requirements because it was headed by a big donor to the US Democratic Party.
Mr Clinton's China policy has been a focus of criticism from political opponents ever since he reversed the hard line of his first presidential campaign to embrace the policy of "constructive engagement" pursued by his predecessor, George Bush.
Opposition escalated in advance of the visit to Washington last year of the Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin, and flared up again first when Mr Clinton brought forward the date of his trip - apparently at China's urging - from the end of this year to June, and in recent weeks as the visit has approached.
Congressional committees have recently heard wrenching accounts of the mistreatment of prisoners in Chinese jails and forced abortions resulting from China's family-planning policies. The licensing of satellite exports has come in for close scrutiny. The lack of religious and intellectual freedom, oppression in Tibet and relations with Taiwan are all advanced by Mr Clinton's critics as reasons why he should not go to China.
Taking on his critics, Mr Clinton argued that his policy of combining engagement with forthright expression of differences was preferable to isolating China. "Choosing isolation over engagement would not make the world safer," he said. "It would make it more dangerous. It would undermine rather than strengthen our efforts to foster stability in Asia. It would eliminate, not facilitate co-operation on issues relating to weapons of mass destruction."
To isolate China, he went on, "would hinder, not help, the cause of democracy and human rights in China. It would set back, not step up, worldwide efforts to protect the environment. It would cut off, not open, one of the world's most important markets."
Mr Clinton cited Chinese co-operation with Western powers after the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, its role in mediation with North Korea and its stand against "competitive currency devaluation" following the economic crises elsewhere in Asia, to argue that China was increasingly open to the outside world and that its responsible use of that openness was in the US interest.
Leading article, Review, page 3Reuse content