Neither Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, nor his counterpart Qian Qichen was under any illusion that their meeting in the Hague would resolve outstanding problems; the best to be expected, experts here believe, was that it would prevent ties deteriorating further. The discussions would be "candid, serious and pragmatic," the Chinese Foreign Minister said - a diplomat's way of saying that much disagreement was to be expected.
Even before the talks started, Mr Qian poured cold water on the US initiative, announced by Mr Clinton in Seoul this week, for a four-party Korean peace conference involving the two Koreas, China and the US. Washington is hoping China's involvement will prod North Korea into serious bargaining, but Mr Qian indicated yesterday that the dispute was up to the Koreas themselves to resolve. Only when the "directly concerned" parties had settled their differences could such four-way talks start.
Korea however is a mere pinprick in today's array of Sino-American arguments. Frayed nerves have barely settled after China's intimidation of Taiwan which saw two US aircraft carrier battle groups despatched to the region. Washington is angry at China's inability - or unwillingness - to prevent wholesale copyright infringement and piracy of US technology by its companies, one reason for the ever-increasing Chinese trade surplus, currently at $34bn (pounds 22bn).
It is also disbelieving of the Peking government's claim to have known nothing of the sale of nuclear weapons-related technology to Pakistan, in breach of international efforts to curb arms proliferation.
China's human rights record is a constant source of complaint, as is what the US sees as Chinese expansionism in East Asia. These worries in part prompted the closer security partnership between the US and Japan presented during President Clinton's visit to Tokyo this week - accords denounced by China as harbinger of a new American doctrine of "containment" directed against itself.
None of these disputes is likely to be settled by the Christopher/Qian talks yesterday. If they are not, however, the risk increases that America's China policy will be held hostage by domestic politics.
For all their other differences, Mr Clinton and Senator Bob Dole, his probable Republican opponent in November, have hewn much the same line on China. Both favour maintaining Peking's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status when it comes up for renewal each June, on thegrounds that to deny it would only make communication more difficult with a country that, like it or not, is emerging as a regional superpower.
But both are under pressure from within their own parties. "Do Republicans love trade more than they loathe tyranny?," thundered Pat Buchanan this week, as Mr Dole's main challenger kept alive the threat that he could make an independent run for the White House unless his views were not adequately reflected in Republican policy. On Capitol Hill too, a growing minority of Republicans wants to "punish" China by denying MFN.
Mr Clinton faces similar protests by many Congressional Democrats, some of whom object to China's human rights record while others complain about Peking's trade practices which they say, like Mexico's, unfairly cost American workers their jobs.