President Biden on Wednesday met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco for the annual APEC (America-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Leaders’ Summit. These are the first Biden-Xi conversations on United States soil with Biden as Commander-in-Chief, and they come amid rising tensions about Chinese espionage, a growing nuclear buildup in Beijing, and concerns over increased Chinese bellicosity over the fate of Taiwan. The first APEC summit on American soil, back in 1993, also offered a rare opportunity for a meeting between Chinese and U.S. leaders, and illustrates the continuously difficult balance of the two nations’ desires for a robust trade relationship with their mutual concerns of geopolitical aggression. 

President Clinton orchestrated the first full-blown summit meeting of the APEC forum in November 1993, near the end of the first year of his presidency. The convergence of 15 leaders from Asia and the Pacific – a group that had informally started to meet in the mid-1980s – took place in downtown Seattle and on nearby Blake Island, off the coast. 

The meeting marked a major economic opportunity for Clinton. The North American Free Trade Agreement, a proposal to lift tariffs on trade between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, had just narrowly passed in the House of Representatives. Negotiations with the massive General Association on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) were progressing toward the eventual 1995 formation of the World Trade Organization. The maturation of APEC, in the words of  Secretary of State Warren Christopher in the leadup to and during the summit, was a chance to secure a “triple play” for Clinton’s goal of opening global markets. 

There was a decided elephant in the room, however, as President Clinton arrived in Seattle. APEC marked the first meeting between the Chinese and American heads of state since February 1989 – four months before the brutal Chinese government crackdown on dissent at Tiananmen Square. 

The U.S.-China dynamic had been tense over the intervening four years. President George H.W. Bush’s administration ended weapons exports to China – a prohibition still partially intact today– and put further limits on American investment in China. Yet Clinton, during his successful 1992 presidential contest against Bush, argued that the Bush administration had not done enough to push China to improve their human rights record, even accusing Bush of “coddling dictators” through his relative moderation toward Beijing.  

Upon taking the presidency, Clinton continued to exchange tense words with Chinese leaders. He advocated the release of political prisoners who planned the Tiananmen protests, including leading dissident Wang Juntao, who was suffering from hepatitis in captivity. And in July 1993, amid concerns about China’s growing weapon sales around the world, the U.S. Navy blocked a Chinese container ship from docking in Iran, alleging – ultimately erroneously – that the ship was carrying chemical weapons. The U.S. refused to formally apologize for the incident. In August, the U.S. put a temporary hold on selling satellites to China after allegations that the Chinese had sold high-tech missile components to Pakistan. And just a month before APEC, China broke an informal world moratorium on nuclear testing. 

Perhaps the most tense disagreement concerned Taiwan, which China – then as now – hoped to reunify into the mainland and which America, via the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, continued to provide with defensive weapons. 

Despite the overlapping controversies, Clinton opened his welcome remarks to the business-heavy crowd of the APEC Summit’s Seattle Host Committee with a hopeful vision of economic abundance. In his speech, available on C-SPAN, Clinton marveled at the growth of Asian economies during the previous decade and argued – in a poetic turn of phrase – that the Cold War-era “domino theory” that led to American intervention in Communist-influenced Asian nations had given way to a focus on economic “dynamos”: 

These economies are growing at 3 times the rate of the established industrial nations. In a short time, many of these economies have gone from being dominoes to dynamos. 

Clinton nodded to the goals in his imminent meetings with Jiang: 

We’re also determined to work with China to eliminate its trade barriers and to raise the issue of our continuing concerns over human rights and weapons sales.

And he offered a hopeful vision of the role that China could play in the global community: 

We could see China expressing the greatness and power of its people and its culture by playing a constructive regional and global leadership role while moving toward greater internal liberalization.

After the welcome remarks, Clinton met with Jiang for some 90 minutes at the nearby posh Rainier Club. The photos from the meeting show a stone-faced Clinton – a projection of sternness that the Washington Post said was “a deliberate effort by U.S. officials to put a tough front on relations with China.” 

Following the talks, Clinton faced the press, who quickly asked Clinton about the Taiwan issue, citing Clinton’s numerous trips to the island over the years. In the exchange, also available on C-SPAN, Clinton argued that the U.S. would continue to adhere to its “One China” policy, a somewhat passive approach by which the United States acknowledged that China claimed Taiwan, but did not formally weigh in on the claim’s validity. Clinton, nonetheless, praised Taiwan and offered a positive vision of Taiwan-China relations: 

I have been very impressed with the remarkable transformation of the country as it has gotten more prosperous and more democratic and impressed also by the amount of investment from Taiwan into China. So that it seems that the two countries are getting along on a commercial basis, even as the rest of us are confronted with political dilemmas from time to time.  

And Clinton argued that the Taiwan issue would not come to define the larger U.S. relationship with China: 

The policy of the United States on one China is the right policy for the United States. It does not preclude us from following the Taiwan Relations Act, nor does it preclude us from the strong economic relationship we enjoy with Taiwan. There’s a representative, as you know, here at this meeting. So I feel good about where we are on that. But I don’t think that will be a major stumbling block in our relationship with China. I think we can work through these other things, that the practical ingenuity of the Chinese people themselves seems to be at least on a course to resolve that in some form or fashion in the years ahead.

Clinton was more vague on what he actually discussed with Jiang. He relayed that he had mentioned the plight of Wang Juntao and other dissidents, had talked about the importance of deterring North Korea from its nuclear ambitions, and had raised concerns not only about Taiwan, but also about Chinese control over Tibet – again, all issues that remain central to the U.S.-China dynamic. 

In a 1998 biography of Jiang, however, journalist Bruce Gilley alleged that the Chinese leader effectively monologued in the closed-door meeting, leading Clinton to joke aloud to his aides, “I should have brought my saxophone along to get some practice in” due to his struggle to get a word in. 

On the following day, November 20th, 1993, Clinton and the visiting leaders headed to a rustic wooden lodge on Blake Island via the Tyee Island Ferry. The dress code, per Clinton’s dictum, was casual; Clinton wore a black leather jacket. The conversation, too, was relatively loose, with leaders sitting in a semicircle and speaking in a mostly free-form manner. 

Jiang’s speech at the summit, available on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website, is both hopeful and similarly opaque to Clinton’s rhetoric. Jiang offered a zoomed-out vision of the fall of the Soviet Union and its implications – both potentially triumphant and potentially perilous:

The world is now in a historic period of dramatic changes. The end of the Cold War and the breakup of the bipolar structure entail a positive evolution in international relations. At the same time, we have seen many local conflicts and complicated situations. The international scene is fluid and fraught with unpredictables. The world is far from being safe. Global peace and development still face severe tests.    

And Jiang encouraged a steely determination to make the last six years of the century positive: 

What is gone is gone. Let us face the future. What kind of a world are we going to usher into the 21st century? This is an important question that we, as the current leaders, must carefully ponder and answer. There are a few years left in this century. We still have time to act and we certainly should try to achieve something. If we work together to surmount difficulties and obstacles, we can help bring about genuine peace and prosperity to mankind. 

As the summit unfolded, a far more granular development in U.S.-China trade occurred. The Clinton administration decided, in the midst of APEC, to resume certain high-tech trade with China, including generators for nuclear power plants that would act as a stimulus of sorts for the powerful General Electric. And the U.S. also agreed to sell China an advanced Cray supercomputer for helping to predict the weather. The move, not unlike Biden’s announcement Wednesday night that China and the U.S. would resume military-to-military communications, represented a legitimate thaw. 

Yet, in another familiar type of hedge about the gulf that persists between the two nations, Bowman Cutter, Clinton’s deputy assistant for economic policy, told the New York Times upon the deal’s announcement: “[The Chinese government] could go down to Radio Shack and buy a couple of personal computers and do the same thing.”

Sure enough, Clinton and Jiang’s dynamic remained strained through the rest of the decade, punctuated by a 1995 missile crisis in the Taiwan Strait, a slew of espionage cases, and the much-contested 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. 

The inaugural APEC summit’s rapprochement between the U.S. and China, in its measured goodwill, light awkwardness, and dichotomous strategy between economic and human rights aims, signaled the arrival of a negotiated peace that continues on in San Francisco this week. 

Read Bruce Gilley’s 1998 Tiger on the Brink: Jiang Zemin and China’s New Elite – the book that revealed the Clinton saxophone quip – for much more on Jiang’s strategy and international profile. 

And head to my Twitter account for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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