Engagement at U.S.-China Summit

The October 29-30, 1997, meeting of Presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton was the first major summit meeting between the United States and China since Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the U.S. in 1979 and the first presidential summit since Li Xiannian came to America in 1985. Seen as a test of America’s policy of comprehensive engagement, the summit resulted in agreements in the areas of trade, peaceful nuclear cooperation, military-to-military ties, and law and bolstered ties between the U.S. and China.

Preparations for the October meeting began early in 1997 with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s and Vice President Al Gore’s respective February and March visits to China. Secretary of State Albright, who attended the Hong Kong transition ceremonies in July, also met with Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in New York during the September meeting of the UN General Assembly to confirm plans for the summit.

The three main issues on the summit agenda were weapons proliferation, trade and China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and human rights. In the area of weapons proliferation, U.S. concerns about nuclear and missile technology transfers to Iran and Pakistan were assuaged by assurances from China that nuclear trade would cease. China recently announced plans to implement a licensing system to tighten control of nuclear-related exports. In return, the U.S. agreed to allow American firms to enter China’s annual $2 billion nuclear power market by lifting a twelve-year ban on the sale of U.S. nuclear technology to China. Forty to fifty nuclear power stations are planned for construction in China over the next twenty years, making the market attractive to U.S. firms, including ABB, General Electric, and Westinghouse.

Agreements in trade were one of the largest achievements of the summit. China’s $40 billion trade deficit with the U.S. is often cited in America. To alleviate perceived American discontent, a Chinese trade mission traveled to Washington shortly before the summit to negotiate an estimated $4.2 billion in business deals. The delegation purchased 700,000 tons of U.S. wheat, despite a good harvest in China this year, and agreed to increase cooperation with America in light truck engine manufacturing and oil exploration. They also signed a $3 billion agreement with Boeing to purchase fifty aircraft. On the issue of tariffs, China announced in September that it was going to lower rates from 23 to 17 percent. During the summit, China announced that it would lower tariff rates to 10 percent on some products. China also said that it would sign the International Technology Agreement (ITA), which is viewed as one of the most significant trade developments since China refused to sign the initiative a year ago.

On China’s part, President Jiang asked for U.S. assistance in its bid for membership in the WTO. Clinton responded that he would not endorse a move to facilitate China’s entry by lessening restrictions on tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers. The next high level meeting on trade issues was held in November, when U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and China’s Minister of Trade Wu Yi met on the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.

Trade is an area where the interests of the Chinese government and the U.S. business sector often coincide, but the U.S. government’s view sometimes differs. American business is eager to tap the market potential of China, and executives of the companies that are engaged in business in China (e.g., Unisys, Arco Corporation, and Lucent Technologies) were eager to meet with Jiang.

Military relations have steadily improved this year, with a number of high level exchanges between top officials. In May, former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs John Shalikashvili visited Beijing and met with China’s Chief of Staff General Fu Quanyou. Additionally, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Dennis Reimer toured Chinese military regions and met with General Fu Quanyou to discuss Sino-U.S. military ties. Several unprecedented military exchanges and visits between the U.S. and China occurred over the past year, such as the first visit of two Chinese naval warships to the U.S. mainland, and the September 8 visit of a U.S. nuclear submarine to Hong Kong. During the summit, America and China reached an agreement on the establishment of a consultation mechanism that strengthens maritime safety and allows maritime and air forces to avoid misunderstandings. After the summit, PLA Deputy Chief of Staff Xiong Guangkai and Under-secretary of Defense William Slocombe held the first official direct military consultations between China and America. And while they met, U.S. Navy Pacific Commander Admiral Joseph Prueher was in Beijing meeting with top officials.

Human rights proved the most intractable issue of the summit. During his press conference with President Clinton, Jiang defended the Chinese government’s policies on Tiananmen, while Clinton charged that--on this issue, we believe the policy of the [Chinese] government is on the wrong side of history.” During a meeting the following morning with Congressional leaders on Capitol Hill, sharp questions were directed to President Jiang about religious persecution, Tibet, and political dissidents. Dick Armey of Texas, House Majority Leader, gave Jiang a list of thirty Chinese citizens that he said are currently imprisoned for their religious beliefs and asked the Chinese leader to have them released.

Protesters met President Jiang at every stop of his summit tour. In a move to quell the rancor of protesters and assure America that China accepted international norms for human rights, President Jiang announced that China would sign the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights during the summit. Mr. Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, welcomed the measure but noted that “China [has] signed other human rights treaties in the past and completely ignored them.” Finally, at Harvard, President Jiang responded to a query about dialogue during Tiananmen by saying, “Naturally, we may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work.”

A summit outcome established a Washington-Beijing presidential communications link. Leaders also agreed to establish a regular summit schedule. Moreover, Presidents Jiang and Clinton agreed to regular exchanges of visits by cabinet and sub-cabinet officials to consult on political, military, security, and arms control issues.

Overall, the summit reaped tangible benefits in the key areas of trade, weapons proliferation, nuclear technology exchange, and military-to-military exchanges, but human rights stood out as a sensitive topic. Also, Congressional pressure remained, despite gains in other areas.

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