US and China set to clash after sanctions: Friction grows over Peking's human rights record and chemical shipment to Iran

WASHINGTON'S decision to impose economic sanctions on China prompted an angry response from Peking yesterday and increased the likelihood that the two countries are heading for a period of confrontation on a number of fronts.

A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry described the sanctions as 'entirely unjustifiable' and insisted that China had not violated an international arms agreement. But he did not deny the allegation made by Washington: that China had sold technology for nuclear-capable M-11 ballistic missiles to Pakistan.

Under international non-proliferation guidelines, it is illegal to sell missiles with a range of more than 186 miles; the range of the M-11 is more than 300 miles. After months of dithering about what to do about the alleged sale, the US announced on Wednesday that it was banning exports of certain hi-tech products to China - a relatively limited embargo which mostly applies to satellites and related equipment and is unlikely to affect China's booming economy.

The move, which seems certain to lead to retaliation from the Chinese, is being seen in Washington as a sign that the Clinton administration is on course for a series of unpleasant tussles with China over a number of issues. 'We're very close to a hostile confrontation,' Richard Solomon, a China specialist from the Rand Corporation told the Los Angeles Times yesterday. 'There is a nexus of pressures that are building.'

The 'nexus' has several components. First, the Clinton administration has been pressing the Chinese for months to improve their human rights record. Officials claim to have been particularly outraged by the treatment of a leading Chinese dissident, Han Dongfang, whom the Chinese refused permission to return after he made a trip to the US. Peking has postponed a visit by the US Assistant Secretary of State, John Shattuck, who is assigned to discussing human rights problems between the two countries.

The Chinese have been annoyed by Washington's opposition - framed in a congressional resolution - to Peking's effort to persuade the International Olympic Committee to locate the 2000 Olympic Games in China. Nor have the Chinese taken kindly to the role the US has played in the dispute of the Yinhe, a Chinese ship which the Americans claim is carrying a shipment to Iran containing material for Tehran's chemical-warfare programme. Peking, which denies the allegations, makes it clear that it considers the conduct of the US, which has tracked the ship with warships, as provocative and bullying.

Some in the US argue that the growing friction has been building for some time, but did not surface publicly until after the US renewed China's most-favoured-nation status in June - trading privileges which enormously benefit both sides. As the agreement is not due for renewal for another 10 months, now is a good time for a dust-up.

MANAMA, Bahrain - The Yinhe, shadowed by a US Navy destroyer, docked yesterday at King Abdul-Aziz port in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, for inspection, AP reports.