BEIJING -- China, in an apparent bid to deflect Western criticism by showing global responsibility, hasagreed in principle to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Premier Li Peng announced Saturday during talks with Japan's prime minister.
But Li, meeting with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, declined to commit China to proposals by the leading industrial democracies designed to better control the sales of conventional weapons to Third World nations.
The announcement was nonetheless certain to be welcomed by Western nations, including the United States, which in recent months has been pressing Beijing to sign the NPT, the major international treaty limiting the spread of nuclear weapons technology.
Kaifu arrived earlier Saturday as the first leader of a major industrial nation to visit China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, bringing the promise of expanded economic cooperation and revived prestige to China's hard-line communist government.
Li's unexpected announcement appeared designed to move the focus of the visit away from human rights or other issues on which China has been criticized, and further Beijing's recent attempts to show a more responsible image in global affairs.
'The Chinese government has in principle agreed to participate in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,' China's official Xinhua news agency quoted Li as telling Kaifu.
Since June, when France signed the 1968 NPT, China had stood out as the last of the world's acknowledged nuclear powers not to support the pact. The United States, Soviet Union and Britain are among 140 signatories.
At Kennebunkport, Maine where President Bush was vacationing, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said China's shift 'is something that we have been seeking for a long time. We welcome this development and look forward to early ratification by China of the treaty.'
At a briefing after the talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wu Jianmin gave no specifics on why Beijing had suddenly reversed its stand on the treaty, saying only: 'Now things have changed.'
He said no time frame was devised for China's signing, but added 'China has not imposed any conditions for accession to the treaty' and 'will be prepared to accept all obligations' under it.
China has been a nuclear power since 1964, and claims it has maintained a non-proliferation policy despite not signing the NPT. But persistent Western intelligence reports say Beijing has helped Pakistan and other nations develop nuclear weapons technology.
Kaifu spokesman Sadaaki Numata said Li was less forthcoming on a proposal, made by the seven leading industrial nations at their July summit, to have countries inform the United Nations before transferring conventional weapons to developing nations.
Li responded only that China 'had a willingness to discuss this further,' Numata said. Beijing has attempted to portray a more responsible role in global arms sales, but is still suspected of preparing to sell missiles abroad.
Numata said Kaifu did not raise specific human rights questions but told Li of a 'strong concern in the international community about the state of democratization and human rights in China.'
Li reiterated a willingness to discuss human rights issues, but demanded that such talks pertain to 'the actual conditions in China,' according to the Chinese account. The phrase effectively rules out Western notions of freedom and democracy.
Kaifu also announced an additional $1.5 million in further emergency aid for victims of this summer's disastrous flooding in China, beyond an already committed sum of nearly $500,000.
Kaifu's four-day schedule called for him to deliver an address Sunday at a Sino-Japanese youth center and meet Monday with President Yang Shangkun and Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin.
After two years of Western sanctions against China, the Kaifu visit formally puts Beijing's hard-line communist leaders back into Western diplomacy and gives them at least the image of credibility.
British Prime Minister John Major will add to the newly revived prestige when he visits Beijing in early September.
Japan joined Western nations in imposing sanctions on China in 1989, but was the first to begin abandoning them with loans and improved political contacts.
The Japanese, haunted still by their own memories and frequent reminders from Beijing of their invasion and brutal occupation of China in the World War II era, have long maintained their relations with China are special.
Kaifu's trip was designed to restore fully those ties. China has also gone as far as to invite Emperor Akihito to visit next year.
Kaifu was to stay in Beijing until Tuesday, then leave for an overnight visit to Mongolia.