SEATTLE -- China's president resisted pressure from President Clinton yesterday for major human rights liberalization, raising anew the prospect of the United States' initiating punishing trade restrictions.
The restrictions, in turn, could undermine President Clinton's dream of vastly expanded Pacific commerce.
Mr. Clinton reported little progress after raising disagreements over human rights, arms proliferation and trade "very frankly" with Jiang Zemin.
He said that the two agreed only to try to resolve their differences through dialogue and negotiation.
"I believe we made a good beginning," Mr. Clinton told reporters.
Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen yielded no ground on human rights in briefing reporters afterward, saying, "We do not approve of the practice of linking things which have nothing to dow with trade to trade issues."
Mr. Jiang, questioned before his meeting with Mr. Clinton by reporters about the points of friction, said, "Both China and the United States are big countries in the world. We should have a discussion in a broader context."
Their meeting was the highest-level U.S.-Chinese meeting in five years.
China's resistance could pose a major problem for President Clinton in the spring.
In May, he renewed China's favorable trade status for a year but conditioned future renewals on "substantial progress" in specific areas of human rights, including political prisoners, prison labor and repression in Tibet.
But punishing China would invite retaliation from the world's most populous nation and fastest-growing economy, and disrupt the trend toward greater trans-Pacific economic cooperation that President Clinton has set as a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
"Anybody should be reluctant to isolate a country as big as China," Mr. Clinton said yesterday, but he vowed to pursue his human rights, trade and arms proliferation pressure on Beijing and noted that "we are their major purchaser."
The United States has imposed sanctions on China for selling M-11 missile parts to Pakistan, and the United States and China have had repeated trade disputes.
Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, who was at yesterday's meeting, said he was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Jiang "engaged in quite an animated way" and didn't try to "stonewall" the president. But Mr. Christopher said that "no specific commitments" were made at the meeting.
Mr. Clinton's meeting with Mr. Jiang occurred on the fringes of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum here, which concludes today, when Mr. Clinton will be host to the biggest meeting ever of leaders from Asia and North America.
In another major development at the conference, members pushed strongly to complete the Uruguay Round of world trade talks by the Dec. 15 deadline and discouraged Europe's push for a reopening of Washington talks on agriculture subsidies.
Their statement, a key conference goal for the United States, was accompanied by pledges from APEC members that are part of the world trade talks to cut or eliminate tariff barriers on specific products as part of any final pact.
That move, another form of pressure on Europe, marked an advance in tariff-cutting steps agreed to by the United States, Canada, Japan and the European Community in July. Two major economies, China and Taiwan, aren't part of the world trade talks.
"The significance of the package will, of course, have to be determined after we conclude negotiations in Geneva," U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor told reporters. "But it will be substantial." He said APEC ministers had "provided a major jump start" for the Uruguay Round.
But the ministers failed to agree on steps toward setting a goal of free trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region. They consigned an "eminent persons" report, which urged APEC to act in 1996 to set a free-trade target date, to another year of study.
Mr. Clinton expanded on his own aims for APEC at various times during the day.
In a speech to local business leaders, he said that the United States "will lead the charge against global recession" by pushing to lower trade barriers worldwide.
Elaborating in a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who will visit Washington in mid-February, the president said he wants a global trade relationship in which the United States and Japan work closely with Europe to stimulate ** growth. He said he foresaw a day of "equal openness" to investment and trade that would allow companies to rise or fall based on merit.
In sessions leading up to yesterday's Clinton-Jiang meeting, top U.S. officials tried to impress upon China that to avoid a cutoff of its most-favored-nation trade status, it must take major early steps and not wait until the May renewal deadline to make concessions.
Otherwise, U.S. officials have said, attitudes in Congress and around the United States will have hardened against China, adding to pressure to deny MFN.
China has countered with moves to build domestic political and business pressure in the United States against a cutoff of MFN. Thursday, Mr. Jiang made a well-publicized visit to Boeing, a major seller of aircraft to China, and later popped in on the family of a Boeing worker, bearing gifts for the worker's children.
At a news conference, government spokesman Wu Jianmin stressed that Asia and the West have different concepts of human rights.
Critics of China, he said, focus on a small number of people who have violated Chinese law rather than on the vast number of people across China whose living standards have risen.
Of Tibet, the spokesman said that "the outside world has a great lack of understanding."
Before Beijing's rule in Tibet, about 90 percent of the people lived in virtual serfdom, subject to torture and treated as "tools or as instruments that could speak," Mr. Wu said. Noblemen's implements were made from workers' bones, he said.
Since 1959, "China has made unprecedented progress, including [in] human rights, in Tibet," he said, doubling life expectancy and building schools.