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.