UNITED States Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy has assured China that President Bill Clinton wants stronger bilateral ties rather than confrontation, and pressed his hosts for trade, human rights and other reforms which would make that possible. ''I assured all of the officials with whom we met that the visits to China from the Clinton administration at very high levels would increase . . . both in frequency and the profile of those who would visit,'' said Mr Espy, the first member of the Clinton cabinet to visit China. ''And this is because it is the desire of our president to improve bilateral relations . . . and to solve some outstanding problems,'' Mr Espy said at a press conference following his five-day visit to Beijing. Among others, Mr Espy met Vice-Premier Zhu Rongji and Agriculture Minister Liu Jiang. Describing his meetings as ''very friendly'', and ''very, very successful'', Mr Espy said he focused on trade issues, where considerable headway had been achieved in resolving bilateral differences. Washington's two other main concerns with China - human rights, and non-proliferation of weapons - were also broached, but Mr Espy was unable to point to any new commitments from the Chinese on either issue. In talking about human rights, Mr Espy said Mr Zhu was ''very gracious, he heard me out''. But the Vice-Premier turned the conversation to trade rather than responding to the concerns about human rights. The Agriculture Secretary said he had made clear that improvements in all three areas - trade, human rights and non-proliferation - were needed for renewal next year of China's Most Favoured Nation trade status with the US. On trade, Mr Espy said the bilateral relationship was still marked by a number of problems following the expiry earlier this month of a 1992 memorandum of understanding under which China pledged to allow greater market access. ''We were very frank that China in our opinion has made great progress in the area of transparency,'' as well as other areas of the memorandum, Mr Espy said. ''But I was very frank to tell those officials with whom we talked that there are some other problems in the area of this market access. We still believe that certain tariffs here in China are way too high,'' he said. Mr Espy said Washington also felt US products were subject to too many import barriers based on sanitary objections. He and his Chinese hosts in particular concentrated on the question of wheat contaminated by the TCK smut. TCK has infected wheat grown in seven states of the US accounting for about a third of total US wheat production, and as much as 75 per cent of potential wheat sales to China. The Chinese have refused to accept TCK wheat, even though the US insists the smut poses no economic or sanitary problem, and notes that China is the only country in the world to ban the grain. ''We are very discouraged and distressed to know that our share of the [Chinese] wheat market has been reduced and been shrinking. In fact all of our agricultural trade recently has been shrinking, even though the level of imports here in China has been increasing,'' Mr Espy said.