A SENIOR American envoy has told China that trade limits are "very likely" without more improvements in human rights, lower trade barriers, and curbs on arms sales.
Following two days of talks between Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord and Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, a US official acknowledged that while China has taken some steps to ease US concerns, roadblocks remain.
The visit by Mr. Lord, a former US ambassador to Beijing and an outspoken critic of Chinese human rights abuses, comes as President Clinton grapples with how far to push China.
In Congress, support is building for legislation that would make renewal of China's most-favored-nation trading status conditional on a better human rights record in Tibet and elsewhere in China, more open trade, and compliance with arms proliferation guidelines.
Mr. Clinton, who sharply criticized President Bush's vetoes of such bills in the past, must decide by June 3, the day before the anniversary of China's military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989.
The trading status allows China to pay the lowest possible tariffs, but more significantly, it has become a symbol of enduring cold-war strains in relations between the US and the last remaining communist power. Beijing says attaching conditions would send jeopardize ties.
"We have stressed in every case that we are not making new requests," said the official. "We are just asking China to implement the agreements," or China's commitments to allow US monitoring of prison labor used in export production, restrict high-technology weapons sales, and trim its huge trade surplus with the US.
Despite the release of several prominent political dissidents this year, US officials have accused China of exporting missiles to Pakistan and resettling large numbers of Chinese in rebellious Tibet. So far the US has been able to visit only one prison of five it has asked to see, diplomats say.
But countering congressmen and human rights activists who want Clinton to push China harder are outspoken business lobbies which contend that the US can't afford to distance itself from one of the world's fastest growing markets.
Shrewdly, China courts its US supporters with large orders for aircraft, automobiles, oil equipment, and agricultural products to underscore its trade links with the US, say diplomats in Beijing.