Beijing embarks on its first formal talks with the new administration of President George W. Bush tomorrow in a week set to be marked by fresh American criticism of China's human rights situation. Zhou Mingwei, Deputy Minister for Taiwan Affairs, will start three days of meetings with Bush officials - as the State Department releases its annual human rights report. Chinese sources said Mr Zhou would concentrate on Taiwan issues but would be prepared to defend the situation on the mainland in the face of what is expected to be stiff criticism. His mission is part of a wider charm offensive geared to stopping significant new weapon sales to Taiwan when the US decides on its annual provision in April. The visit is expected to pave the way for a mission by Vice-Premier Qian Qichen in late March that will pursue a similar 'hands-off' agenda. 'He has a strong message to deliver that the US should desist from fresh arms sales to Taiwan and that will be his priority,' said one official. 'He will not be letting the publication of this report deter him from that goal. Wider economic and diplomatic issues may surface.' Mr Zhou will not see new Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is currently visiting the Middle East. Instead he will meet Under-secretary Alan Larson. He will meet senior officials from the National Security Council, the Pentagon, Trade Representative and Commerce departments. Mr Zhou is also due to see overseas Chinese groups and a delegation of American scientists. The human rights report and the Taiwan weapon decision will emerge at the same time as some of the first signs of how President Bush's team will flesh out its policy of cautious engagement with China - an approach still under review. Mr Powell has repeated that China presents the US with many tough challenges but must under no circumstances be turned into an enemy. Some American analysts predict there will be little extra from Mr Zhou, despite his strong links with the US. He completed doctoral studies at Harvard and was a visiting fellow during three spells in the 1990s. 'So far he has taken a very doctrinaire line,' said Larry Wortzel, director of Asian Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, a private Washington think-tank with close ties to Taiwan. 'So far he has done nothing but repeat Qian Qichen's more rigid, tough lines.'