All the way up the chain it went, from the embassy's human rights officers, who took the call; to the embassy's second in command, Robert Wang; to the State Department's Asia desk back in Washington. From there, it went to Clinton's activist assistant secretary for East Asia, Kurt Campbell. He called Sullivan, who despite his policy-planning title is by all accounts an indispensable presence at Clinton's side. It was late Wednesday night Washington time, and Sullivan convened the department's top brass before calling the secretary herself at home. He also briefed McDonough and others at the White House. In the second of what a participant called two "extensive conversations," Clinton made the decision. Let's do it, she said. But the crisis planning went on all night: Would the Chinese cancel the strategic dialogue with Clinton outright? Scrap her meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao?
It had been more than two decades since the United States had harbored a Chinese dissident in its embassy, when it took in academic Fang Lizhi, fleeing the carnage of Tiananmen Square -- and then spent the next 13 months negotiating to get him out of the country. No one wanted a repeat. And with Clinton set to fly into the midst of the story, her negotiators would have less than five days to figure out a solution -- without overwhelming the Strategic and Economic Dialogue Clinton had pushed so hard to create in the first place.
Ironically, Clinton the would-be president had little to say on the campaign trail about the rise of China (nor for that matter had Obama), but from her first meetings after Obama tapped her for the job, she was urged to "look east," said one of her close advisors. Republican former secretaries George Shultz and Henry Kissinger had the same advice: "You've got to look to Asia because there's a lot of work to be done there. There's a sense out there that we've kind of turned our back on them, that we're just not as present, as engaged, and China's going like gangbusters," the aide recalled.
Clinton, prodded by her new Asia chief, Campbell, decided to make the continent her first trip, a break with tradition meant to signal the region's newfound strategic importance. "Look," he had told her, playing to her get-things-done side, "this is where the opportunity is." But then came her comment about the limited role human rights would play on her agenda with the Chinese.
She had done it on purpose, in part to signal that this was no longer the first lady of the Beijing human rights speech they were dealing with -- but it was immediately termed a gaffe, both by her old human rights allies and, privately, by some of her new colleagues in the Obama administration. "I didn't realize it was going to be controversial as much as it turned out to be," Clinton said in our interview. "I also needed to send a signal to them saying, 'Look, I'm now secretary of state, I carry this whole portfolio, and human rights is an important, essential part of it. But there's a lot of other business we have to get done.' So yes, am I going to raise human rights? Absolutely, but I'm also going to be raising economic issues and Iran and North Korea and all the rest of it. So that was certainly the signal I was sending to them: that I'm somebody you can do business with, and I will forever disagree with you on all the things I've already told you I disagree with you about for the past 20 years, but I'm going to represent the entire portfolio."
In the White House, the Obama advisor told me, there was much concern. "After the mistake in China -- even though what she had said, lots of people actually agreed with -- it was just worrying. Can she do this job?" he recalled. What this aide and others termed the intense "micromanagement" of the celebrity new diplomat did not end for some time.
But as Obama and his team focused on the many crisis items in their own inbox, Asia remained a key part of Clinton's portfolio, and she began working it relentlessly, showing up at an alphabet's soup worth of regional forums, proposing decidedly unglamorous new programs like a Lower Mekong Initiative to help the four countries along the river. When China angered its neighbors with increasingly assertive claims to territory in the South China Sea, Clinton was there to take advantage at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations security meeting in 2010; suddenly, America seemed popular again in the region, and countries from Japan to Vietnam were talking about the benefits of a U.S. presence. "There's nothing that works in diplomacy like success," said Campbell. At the same time, Clinton continued to work the Chinese too, promoting much more intense engagement than in the past. By late last year, when she announced the administration's "pivot," it seemed as if American diplomacy had spent the previous three years working up to it.