EIGHT MONTHS after Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin raised glasses in Peking, Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, flew to China last night to tackle a host of issues that have soured relations

Their friendly toasts to Sino-US relations have since been replaced by recriminations and mistrust.

On almost every front, the two sides are sharply at odds, from human rights and China's massive trade surplus with the US, to banned satellite deals and plans by Washington for a Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) system for Asia that could embrace Taiwan.

The atmosphere surrounding Ms Albright's visit may determine whether Washington will sponsor a motion against China at this month's UN Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva.

"Human rights is very much part of my agenda when I'm in China, but we have not yet made a final decision about how we are going to deal with Geneva," Ms Albright said before her departure.

Human rights are again taking centre stage in the relationship, because of China's crackdown on dissidents in the past three months.

Last week the US Senate voted 99-0 for a non-binding resolution urging US action in Geneva.

That was followed by publication of the annual State Department world human rights report, which said China's record deteriorated sharply in 1998.

Yesterday police in the city of Wuhan detained two dissidents who had planned to hold a human rights forum starting today, and placed other activists under surveillance.

And an activist in Peking, Peng Ming, who last year organised political discussion groups, has been sentenced without trial to 18 months "re-education through labour". His alleged offence was consorting with prostitutes, a charge dismissed by his family.

In meetings today with Chinese leaders, Ms Albright will press for tariff reforms and greater market access for American business, reiterating that China's $57bn trade surplus with the US is not acceptable.

Even on multilateral diplomatic issues, China is proving obdurate. Peking used its Security Council veto last week to end the deployment of 1,100 United Nations peace-keepers in Macedonia.

At a time when most of the world is trying to bring peace to the Balkans, Peking decided to punish Macedonia for switching diplomatic relations from China to Taiwan.

In such an acrimonious atmosphere, it is difficult to see what can be pulled out of the hat for the April visit to Washington of China's Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji.

US officials cite the potential for progress on China's long-stalled bid to join the World Trade Organidation (WTO) as their best bet to put Sino-US relations back on track - although no major trade and tariff disputes have been settled. China has its own list of grievances against Washington.

Last week, Peking lashed out at Washington's decision to block a $450m commercial satellite deal, ominously warning that the delay would have a "negative impact" on the two countries' economic and trade relations - Sinospeak that Peking was considering some form of commercial retaliation to hurt America.

The US blocked the sale by Hughes Space and Communications Corp because of fears that sensitive launch technology would fall into Chinese military hands.

Now China's high command has raised the alarm about Taiwan's potential inclusion in Washington's planned TMD system for East Asia. In China's eyes, such a move would be the biggest obstacle of all to harmonious relations.

TMD would provide a shield for Japan, South Korea and possibly Taiwan, ostensibly prompted by North Korea's recent missile launch.

The foreign ministry said that TMD may "trigger an arms race", adding: "We hope that the countries concerned will not cling on to the Cold War mentality."