Leaving on an increasingly controversial mission to China, President Clinton said Wednesday he hoped a flap over three journalists being denied visas would not endanger efforts on nonproliferation and the detargeting of nuclear missiles.
"I hope that we can deal with all these issues independently," Clinton told reporters after signing a child-support bill."I think the Chinese understand, as we do, that we've got a big common stake in a nonproliferation agreement for weapons of mass destruction. So I would think that they would not let this get in the way of what is in their self-interest, just as I won't let them get in the way of what is in the interest of the United States."
As for an agreement to point Chinese missiles away from U.S. cities, Clinton said, "I hope we can do that, but I don't know yet. I don't have an announcement to make."
He squeezed in an Oval Office interview with the three Radio Free Asia journalists before his late-morning departure in order, he said, to "send a clear signal that we don't believe ideas need visas and that we support freedom of the press in our country."
Over the weekend, China's communist government canceled visas for the three RFA employees who had planned to travel with the White House and cover Clinton's historic trip - the first of an American president since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Clinton, who for weeks has had to defend the trip against stiff criticism from congressional Republicans and human rights advocates, also rebuffed calls from House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., that Clinton face down what the speaker called China's "censorship" by taking the RFA reporters as personal guests on Air Force One.
"I intend to press this issue by doing the interview," said Clinton, who invited news cameras to photograph the session.
Asked if he would concede to pressure from human rights groups and meet there with Chinese dissidents, the president said, "I am going to see a number of people from different elements of Chinese society, and I am going to do what I think is best to promote the cause of human rights."
The administration has said Clinton does not plan to meet dissidents for fear that Chinese authorities might harass them after he leaves.
Overnight, U.S. Ambassador James Sasser "delivered a strong demarche" to Vice Foreign Minister Yang Wang and unsuccessfully pressed Beijing to reverse the visa denial, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said. Lockhart, as if to play down any affront to Americans' free-press values, pointed out that Radio Free Asia is funded by a U.S. government agency.
The president, who left from the White House South Lawn with his wife, Hillary, and their daughter, Chelsea, for the nine-day trip, said: "I want and I hope that this trip will not only allow me to learn more about China and allow the American people to learn more about China but help me to explain America - and what we believe in and why - to not only the government but the people of China."
Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, joined GOP conservatives Tuesday who again called for Clinton to cancel his trip.
"For the president to be received in Tiananmen Square, the place where freedom was brutally crushed just a few short years ago, is not only a bad idea, but a slap in the face to those who look to America for inspiration and leadership," he said.
The president's itinerary, all dates EDT:
Thursday, June 25: President welcomed by people of Xian at South Gate of Old City; visits village of Xia He; visits site of discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors outside of Xian. Arrives Beijing and remains overnight.
Friday, June 26: Welcomed in state arrival ceremony by President Jiang Zemin at the Great Hall of the People, on the edge of Tiananmen Square; meets with Jiang and senior officials in the Great Hall of the People. Clinton and Jiang hold news conference.
Saturday, June 27: State banquet at Great Hall of the People; attends services at Chong-wenmen Church.
Sunday, June 28: Visits Forbidden City and Great Wall of China; addresses students and community of Peking University.
Monday, June 29: Arrives in Shanghai, stays overnight. Meets with community leaders from Shanghai area.
Tuesday, June 30: Mayor of Shanghai hosts reception at Shanghai Museum; Clinton addresses U.S. business leaders; lunches with young entrepreneurs from Shanghai area.
Wednesday, July 1: Meets with new homeowners, builders and mortgage bankers. Flies to Guilin; discusses environment with Guilin residents.
Thursday, July 2: Tours the Guilin Peaks along Li River. Visits village of Yangshou. Flies to Hong Kong; addresses business and local leaders of Hong Kong; holds news conference.
Friday, July 3: Departs en route Andrews Air Force Base.