HUMAN rights may remain an important part of the Sino-American agenda, but the United States' top business leaders breathed a sigh of relief yesterday in the knowledge that now they too had an advocate in Washington. Six days after embarking on a historic trade mission to China with US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, the 24 American corporate executives were all smiles and exchanging chummy handshakes at an American Chamber of Commerce lunch, pleased with having signed contracts worth more than US$6 billion. And that is just the beginning. ''Secretary Brown seems to understand that we're now part of a global economy. America needs to be a vital player because the only way we can develop a strong national economy is by being active in the world economy,'' said Entergy Corp chairman Edwin Lupberger. For his part, Mr Lupberger signed a memorandum of understanding with the Lippo Group of Hong Kong and the North China Power Group worth about $1 billion to manage and expand the Datong No 2 Power Plant about 400 kilometres from Beijing. Like others, Mr Lupberger predicted that uncertainty over China's high inflation rate and its admission to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade were short-term concerns related to China's status as a developing nation and not likely to be long-term hindrances to investment. ''We're confident enough to be signing agreements and moving ahead as fast as we can,'' he said. ''China is heading into an extremely exciting period in its history and we want to be part of that.'' TRW chairman Joseph Gorman, who agreed to supply Beijing Cable TV network with one million descrambler units valued at $100 million, said that the success of the US trade mission proved that America had finally shifted towards a more balanced foreign policy that embraced both political and economic goals. ''One can say that we're simply trying to catch up with the rest of the world, which hasn't had to be so concerned about matters of national security and defence because they haven't had the position in world leadership that we have had,'' Mr Gorman said. West Virginia governor Gaston Caperton added that the mission had provided him with a model for future trade delegations from his state. Systems Integrated president Susan Corrales-Diaz also applauded Mr Brown for completing negotiations on a US Commercial Centre to open in Shanghai that would assist small and medium-sized businesses in entering the Chinese market. Safi Qureshey, chairman of computer company AST Research, was optimistic that intellectual property rights abuses could be reduced over the long term by increased co-operation between Chinese and foreign companies. AST is teaming up with Beijing software company Sun Tendy to minimise piracy by selling computer hardware and software together as a single package. ''The next century is the information age and we want to work with the Chinese. We see huge potential,'' Mr Qureshey said.