BEIJING - When she mapped out her eight-day trip around the world this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton knew it would be interesting.
But even the globe-trotting Clinton couldn't have predicted the international intrigue she faces in China, with which the United States maintains its most complex geopolitical relationship 40 years after President Nixon swung open the doors to the world's most populous nation.
The escape from house arrest of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, who may have sought asylum at the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy here, has added a new layer of derring-do to a diplomatic mission that includes discussions of arms sales, maritime security and a number of delicate trade, currency and intellectual property rights issues.
"She's on the front lines of it," says Dennis Ross, a veteran envoy who served under both Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton. She hasn't commented on Chen's situation, however, and Ross says, "It may be the kind of issue that you can't solve when there's a lot of attention on it."
For Clinton, who's accustomed to juggling many balls in the air simultaneously, the Chen affair is but the latest of several controversies that could light up the customarily staid, two-day dialogue on strategic and economic issues.
North Korea's recent rocket launch attempt and threats to conduct an underground nuclear test surely will be broached, as will U.S. plans to fortify Taiwan's air defenses. And the case of Bo Xilai, a prominent member of the ruling Politburo who was stripped of his power amid rumors of financial wrongdoing, hangs over the talks.
Clinton is no rookie when it comes to speaking out in China. As first lady in 1995, she gave perhaps her most famous speech equating women's rights with human rights "once and for all."
The modern phase of the crusade for equal rights for women "starts at that moment, at that speech, in the suburbs of Beijing," says Jane Harman, a former member of Congress who now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Last year, in a Honolulu speech marking what she called "America's Pacific century," Clinton cited Chen's house arrest as an example of China's spotty human rights record. "When we see reports of lawyers, artists and others who are detained or disappeared, the United States speaks up both publicly and privately," she said.
Before taking off from Washington on Monday night, Clinton gave little hint of the potentially contentious talks awaiting her halfway around the world. She hosted two dinners: one at the State Department to honor "powerful women" and the other at National Geographic headquarters to honor Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
If the trip goes as planned, by the time she returns to U.S. soil next week, Clinton also will have stopped in Bangladesh - the 96th country on her itinerary, tying her with Madeleine Albright as the most-traveled secretary of State in terms of countries visited.
She also will have touched down in India, a nation where residents have revered Clinton since her visits there as first lady in the 1990s.
"We are engaging in a wholehearted way," she said last week at a Wilson Center dinner in her honor -- "not just with governments, but with citizens."