But the way the Chen saga played out also suggests that certain fissures make their way into other areas of the relationship no matter how hard both sides try to contain them.
At the start of the Obama administration, during her first trip to China as secretary of state in 2009, Hillary Rodham Clinton pronounced that recurring areas of disagreement between the United States and China — such as human rights — should not interfere with priorities such as the economy or security.
The Chen incident not only placed human rights at center stage — something both sides have tried hard to avoid — but also showed that the United States and China might not always be able to control the direction of the dialogue.
Differing values and strong internal pressures in both countries could easily have driven the effort to find a solution off the rails.
When circumstances were at their most dire, domestic pressures were at their strongest. As the first deal to allow Chen to stay in China unraveled and U.S. negotiators scrambled to salvage an agreement, Republicans in Washington launched harsh criticism, accusing the administration’s negotiators of being too naive, too trusting and too soft on China — an oft-repeated line of attack during the past three years.
In an election year, when looking soft on anything is dangerous, the criticism could have forced U.S. negotiators to harden their positions and give up some of the flexibility needed in diplomacy.
Meanwhile, the Chen crisis could not have come at a worse time for Chinese leaders. Still reeling from the worst political scandal in a generation, which led to the sacking of high-ranking official Bo Xilai, the leadership could not afford to look weak.
Compounding that was a nationalistic confidence or swagger — some have called it arrogance — that has grown among Chinese leaders in recent years.
It was most evident after the financial crisis that plunged the world into a recession but that left China relatively unscathed.
“Since then, China has been less willing to make concessions overall,” said Chris Johnson, a former top analyst for the CIA.
Such forces could have complicated negotiations during the Chen crisis.
Shortly after the initial deal was struck and Chen left the U.S. Embassy, Chinese government-sanctioned editorials began appearing in state-owned media that decried U.S. interference and demanded an apology.
The strain and pressure on both sides showed in the negotiations, with the lead Chinese diplomat, Cui Tiankai, blowing up at a key U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. In one meeting, he refused to look at Campbell’s face and said he no longer wished to talk to him, according to senior Obama administration officials.
That the two sides were able to recover is indicative of the pragmatic streak that runs in the leadership of both countries.
Eventually, Cui’s superiors ordered him to sit down with Campbell. And the two men, who have spent hundreds of hours in talks together in recent years, repaired their relationship. They worked out a tentative deal using a face-saving model that several U.S. officials compared to the Shanghai communique — a 1972 agreement that resolved U.S. and Chinese differences over Taiwan by allowing each country to address its disagreements in differing but parallel statements.
How the Chen episode will affect the relationship in general remains to be seen.
Part of the administration’s China strategy early on was to urge Beijing to take more responsibility to match its growing economy and military.
Some Chinese leaders, however, interpreted the U.S. moves as a conspiracy to slow China’s domestic development by weighing it down with international responsibilities.
The dynamic played out most clearly when the United States tried to get China’s agreement on new international steps to more strictly rein in pollution linked to climate change. China, in the middle of a decades-long boom fueled by cheap energy, bucked the attempt.
In the past year, the Obama administration has focused on a new strategy built around what was originally called a “pivot to Asia” — a term now eschewed for the preferred “strategic rebalancing in Asia.”
The approach is meant to reassure Asian allies, demonstrate U.S. strength to China and declare intentions of a lasting U.S. presence. It is also aimed at taking a regional, multilateral approach to China.
The Chinese, however, have shown signs of sometimes preferring a bilateral conversation with the United States, most recently and vividly demonstrated in the negotiations with Chen.
One of the strongest bargaining chips for the United States in the Chen negotiations, according to U.S. negotiators, was the bilateral talks between Clinton and top Chinese leaders that were set to begin within days.
Those talks were valuable to the Chinese as a vehicle to showcase their competence in managing the U.S.-China relationship. For Chinese leaders, U.S. officials say, that image was imperative.