U.S. policy toward China is often inconsistent and subject to lurches in part because the Clinton administration is averse to setting priorities with a China it regards as unreliable.

Washington and Beijing engage in frequent tests of will -- over human rights, trade, arms sales and Taiwan -- and each dispute becomes a gauge of the overall health of relations. The latest test begins today in Beijing, with U.S.-China talks over China's lax enforcement of copyright laws. The administration has threatened trade sanctions over the issue, and China says it would retaliate.

While each government has been careful to keep bilateral relations out of the deep freeze, neither has been able to reach a level of comfort in its dealings with the other. President Clinton has rejected repeated invitations to visit Beijing, and Vice President Gore will not attend an environmental conference there this spring to avoid giving the impression of official warmth, U.S. officials say.

Dialogue is kept up under a 15-month-old approach called "comprehensive engagement," in which almost any U.S. official in contact with China carries a mixed and sometimes confused menu of missions. For instance, Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary will soon visit China to harvest some contracts for private U.S. business, but will also take up human rights and arms proliferation, issues usually handled by a secretary of state.

Instituted when relations were arguably at a low point, comprehensive engagement has failed to pull relations out of a chill.

"We decided to talk to China before we were clear about what we had to say," said Harry Harding, a China specialist and dean of George Washington University's school of international studies. "As a result, it's very easy for the Chinese to misunderstand what the United States is about."

The administration regards it prudent to get a clear idea of who will keep power after the death of Deng Xiaoping, the country's aged and incapacitated leader, before it sets out to devise a broad new relationship with China.

"China wants us to define overarching policy goals, beneath which lesser problems can be subsumed. We're not doing that, and that is something they don't find fully satisfactory," according to one senior policymaker.

The risk is that relations will get worse while China is in the transitional period. Some observers warn that China is beginning to see Washington as an enemy. Recently, China reversed a long-standing policy of welcoming the American military presence in the Pacific as a stabilizing factor, U.S. officials say.

U.S. officials believe that China thinks Clinton is a pushover, because of his retreat last May from a threat to reduce trade with China over Beijing's repressive human rights record. The new talks over copyright enforcement are a way to recover, the officials say.

Technically the issue is a narrow trade dispute, and each side has tried to keep it within those bounds: The United States is threatening only $1 billion in sanctions, although China's actions cost American business an estimated $3 billion a year. In its retaliatory threat, China stayed away from acting against from such top-dollar American exports as airplanes and grain.

But national security adviser Anthony Lake portrayed the talks as a means of recovering credibility.

"They were convinced we were not serious about human rights. They were wrong. Human rights did not go away," he said.

Lake noted that once the United States threatened sanctions over the copyright issue, China quickly called for new talks. "It was a sign they took us seriously," he said at a lunch with Washington Post reporters and editors.

Friction appears chronic to the relationship. The two countries disagree over arms sales abroad: China refuses to admit it sold missile parts to Pakistan and has ignored a U.S. offer to lift bans on high-technology sales to China in return for the acknowledgment. Recently, Beijing also refused to receive a delegation of U.S. officials to discuss its adherence to the Missile Control Technology Regime, an accord China has agreed to abide by.

Beijing and Washington have clashed over Clinton's decision to upgrade relations with Taiwan, fearing the action will encourage the Taiwanese to declare themselves independent from China.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and inalienably linked to the mainland; it recently canceled a visit by Transportation Secretary Federico Pena to Beijing after he stopped in Taiwan. Suspicions are heightened over remarks by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) backing Taiwan's effort to join the United Nations.

"The Chinese increasingly suspect that the United States is seeking to thwart China's emergence as a great power and keep China weak and divided," said Bonnie Glaser, a consultant on Asian affairs. "An economically or militarily powerful China, deeply resentful of the United States, could be more stridently nationalistic and determined to resist perceived bullying."

Critics say that at the root of the problems are mixed signals from the United States that China must sort as to their seriousness. For instance, is human rights progress a top U.S. priority or just one of many?

Recently, Secretary of State Warren Christopher described China's rights record as "disturbing and incompatible with realizing the full potential of our bilateral relations." Cryptically, Lake said, "We will not sacrifice human rights on the altar of economic interest, or non-proliferation on the altar of human rights."

The evident contradictions were spoofed by comedian Jay Leno recently on NBC's "Tonight Show": "Thousands of people get run over in Tiananmen Square by tanks -- no problem. But bootleg a copy of Ernest Goes to Jail,' and that's it -- send in the troops."

The U.S. contacts with Beijing sometimes seem to be pitted against one another.

John H.F. Shattuck, the State Department's human rights officer, has dressed down Beijing for its numerous human rights abuses, while Defense Secretary William J. Perry and other Pentagon officials have aggressively pursued military contacts with the Chinese army, regarded as prime villains in the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings.

The military is also responsible for many egregious violations of copyright laws; its factories turn out millions of counterfeit discs. It also sells military equipment to Iran.

There is no reason to believe ill will is inevitable. For example, China and the United States agree that the Korean peninsula should be denuclearized.

Yet comprehensive engagement has become a kind of cover for the unwillingness or inability to replace the Cold War strategic view of Beijing as a counterbalance to Moscow.

Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, defends comprehensive engagement as the best way to "ensure momentum in our relations." He argues that bumps in the road are inevitable. His goal is to bring China into a variety of international organizations that would require Beijing to alter its economic and perhaps political behavior.

Presumably, conformity will make China a fit strategic partner for the United States. "We say: You have to accept the rules on arms sales, human rights and trade to have integrated relations with the rest of the world," a senior official said. "They say: Adjust the rules."