Bill Clinton's forthcoming visit to the mainland will be rich in images - of the president attending church and answering calls at a radio phone-in programme - but will yield slim pickings for United States business despite its eagerness to use the visit to push through its agenda. The focus of the visit will be on improving relations in the broadest sense, on nuclear proliferation, the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, Asian security, the Korean peninsula, human rights and the rule of law. Mr Clinton will, of course, discuss with his hosts economic issues such as the US trade deficit with China, the Asian financial crisis, the falling yen and the need to stimulate Japan's economy, but is unlikely to obtain from them any specific benefits for US companies. US corporates have a long shopping list - a more simple and transparent regulatory regime and better access for services, especially insurance, banking, accountancy, telecommunications, legal services and the retail and wholesale business - all sectors in which US firms enjoy comparative advantages. Diplomats say that commercial issues constitute just one item on Mr Clinton's agenda and not the main one. Promoting US business is only one of many objectives for the visit, his first to China and the first by an incumbent president since George Bush in February 1989. Mr Clinton wants better relations with China and to treat it more like a partner - not an ally like Japan or Britain, but an increasingly powerful military, diplomatic and economic force. He needs Beijing's help to prevent a worsening of the Asian financial crisis, a nuclear arms race in South Asia with its leverage over Pakistan, and a conflict in Korea with its influence over Pyongyang, as well as its vote at the UN on Yugoslavia and Iraq. Events since President Jiang Zemin's visit to the US in October have moved in China's favour. It is the only major Asian country which has maintained strong growth and not devalued its currency, although its leaders have, in recent weeks, been emphasising what a high price they are paying for this, in terms of lost exports and lower foreign investment. Fearing a further round of competitive devaluations, Washington has frequently expressed its gratitude for Beijing's firmness on the yuan, for its help to Thailand and Indonesia and for the continued growth. This context makes it difficult for Mr Clinton to be too hard on Beijing, the model citizen by comparison with Tokyo, which is so much richer and should be more able to act as the engine for Asia but is doing the opposite. The yen is falling, exports are going up, its banks are pulling their money out of Asia and domestic demand is dead. Beijing believes that it is its turn to receive a reward for this good behaviour since the start of the Asian crisis, in removal of the remaining sanctions imposed after Tiananmen and of restrictions on high-technology exports and quicker access to the World Trade Organisation. 'The responsible behaviour of China has met with high acclaim from the international community and the best reward it can make is to let China join the WTO as soon as possible,' vice-foreign trade minister Sun Zhenyu told a seminar last week. Another reason for Mr Clinton not to stress commercial issues is the domestic pressure from allegations over improper campaign contributions and transfer of satellite technology to China, so he does not wish to highlight his ties to US companies. Fear of criticism at home is apparently why he has declined invitations to visit plants owned by Motorola and General Motors, which would have sent the ideal image of high-technology investment in China. He does not want to upset labour unions angry over the export of jobs. A visit to Lucent Technologies' optic-fibre plant in Beijing - highly computerised and with only 100 workers - seems the most probable. 'Clinton will do something business-wise, but nothing has been decided,' one diplomat said. He cannot return home with his pockets empty. So projects will be signed during his visit; these are likely to involve coal-fired power stations, environmental protection, air traffic control and radar technology. There will also be a joint housing initiative, to pass on the US experience of how it successfully used housing to revive its economy during the Depression and in the immediate post-World War II period. This will aim to help the mainland with its ambitious plans to end 50 years of subsidised state housing for urban workers and commercialise the market. But do not expect any breakthroughs on the mainland's application for WTO membership or dramatic gestures by Beijing to cut its giant trade surplus with Washington. These are issues that will take years to settle. Even mainland experts do not expect movement. Zhang Yebai, a US specialist at the China Academy of Social Sciences, said there would be no breakthrough on WTO entry during the Clinton visit and that Mr Clinton would leave some post-Tiananmen sanctions in place. All this adds up to a frustrating time for US banks, insurance, telecommunications and other service companies that have invested heavily in the hope of a bigger slice of the market. Even Mr Clinton, the visiting king with all his courtiers, cars and aircraft - the electronic equivalent of horses and elephants - cannot pry open the door of the Imperial Kingdom.