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WASHINGTON — On a steamy August day along the Chinese coast, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. stepped off a minibus at a seaside compound for a series of unusual meetings with China’s Communist Party leaders.

At a lunch banquet, Mr. Biden and three other senators argued with Chinese officials about what the O.J. Simpson trial had revealed about the integrity of the U.S. legal system. When the senators met afterward with the party secretary, Jiang Zemin, they sparred over that and other thorny issues: missile technology proliferation, human rights and Taiwan.

But Mr. Biden, leading his first overseas trip as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was also there in Beidaihe in 2001 to help usher in an important era in America’s relationship with China — the building of a commercial link that would allow the Communist nation entry into the World Trade Organization.

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