THE SENIOR PARTNER asked the new recruit to his law firm if she would like to work on a dumping case. No, came the reply, she would feel uncomfortable arguing against environmental interests. The partner replied this had nothing to do with the environment and the junior employee soon learned that dumping was to do with unfair competition caused by subsidised products being sold below market prices. The new recruit was Charlene Barshefsky. Neither she nor the senior partner imagined that about 20 years later, in 1996, she would become the United States' chief trade negotiator, with a reputation for being tough and a master of detail. Ms Barshefsky's crowning achievement during her period as US trade representative was concluding the landmark bilateral trade agreement with China on November 15, 1999. This was perhaps the biggest hurdle to be cleared to facilitate China's recent accession to the World Trade Organisation. Her main sparring partner on the Chinese side during these arduous negotiations was Long Yongtu who, in a recent interview with a Chinese magazine, gave his version of events surrounding the final negotiations on the bilateral agreement in Beijing. Mr Long claimed that the Americans bluffed on the evening before the agreement was signed by pretending homeward flights had been booked for the morning of November 15, putting pressure on the Chinese to close a deal. The American delegation then called Mr Long at midnight to arrange a meeting at 4.30am, explaining the strange time of the meeting was 'because we are used to American time', according to Mr Long. The meeting went ahead, many outstanding issues were cleared up and the Americans postponed their flight to allow further negotiations, which resulted in the deal. Mr Long says that he later found no such flight had been booked and it was just a negotiating tactic by the Americans. 'The acting ability of the Americans was first class, especially its chief negotiator [Ms Barshefsky],' Mr Long said in the interview. Ms Barshefsky has politely dismissed Mr Long's recollection of the final negotiations. 'It wasn't a bluff,' she said. 'I'm not a negotiator that relies on drama . . . because the dramatic gesture typically looks staged and is so out of context from the ordinary negotiation that it's very hard to pull off in any convincing manner.' The American delegation was genuinely planning to leave Beijing, according to Ms Barshefsky, because they believed China was not ready to sign a deal then after discussions that were 'largely unproductive and frustrating' for both sides. 'I had a great concern that the Chinese were simply not ready to conclude and that the longer we stayed the less productive the discussions would become,' she said. Ms Barshefsky relayed this opinion to then president Bill Clinton, who agreed that the delegation should prepare to return to Washington unless circumstances improved. 'So this was not an idle threat or an idle gesture - it was one that I had discussed at length with president Clinton,' she said. As for arranging a meeting for 4.30am, Ms Barshefsky said she could not recall the exact circumstances but it would not have had anything to do with being used to American time. 'If I had asked for a meeting for 4.30 in the morning it was likely because my whole team and I had been meeting until then. We decided on an approach, called Long and said let's meet.' Ms Barshefsky believes the talks had stalled because of indecision at the top of the Chinese hierarchy about how far they were prepared to compromise. Then, she believes, a series of meetings among the top hierarchy took some crucial decisions that enabled them to go for a deal. 'I felt all during that week that the Chinese side was not entirely sure how it wanted to handle a number of very difficult political issues,' she said. 'Ultimately the leadership made decisions and drew some lines obviously, compromised in some other areas, and at the end the deal was actually rather easy to put together.' Despite the differences and tensions during the negotiations, Ms Barshefsky said relations were always cordial and she was full of respect for her counterparts. 'Chinese negotiators are very smart, very well briefed, cautious and very tough - they challenge everything, every point,' she said. 'You are facing a team that is as good in the art of negotiation as anybody in the world, but they have a broader perspective than most other negotiators and can therefore see practical solutions to complex problems.' Not only did Ms Barshefsky have to strike a deal with China, but she had to ensure the rest of the American administration was ready to push for approval of any agreement in Congress. Congress had to approve Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR) for China. Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji aimed to clinch a WTO deal during his visit to the US in April 1999, but the Clinton administration was reported to be split on whether the timing was right to put the issue before Congress. Ms Barshefsky was reported to favour reaching an agreement with China then, but the administration decided to hold off for fear that the hawks on Capitol Hill could deny China PNTR status. Ms Barshefsky confirmed that the US administration was split on the issue of timing. 'There was a split at the time, particularly within the White House, as to the advisability of moving forward at that point in time. There was great concern on the part of some in the White House that the political timing was not quite right,' she said. Although there were still some outstanding issues with the Chinese, Ms Barshefsky believed these could have been resolved. In her view, the decision to walk away from Mr Zhu's offer then was wrong - a decision that was presumably taken by president Clinton. 'There is also no question in my mind that those who feared the political timing was not quite right were wrong,' she said. 'Indeed we had a much more difficult time getting PNTR through because by the time we did we were into a presidential election cycle and that made it ever more difficult.' The negotiating environment was also worsened by Nato's accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999. The White House's decision not to pursue a deal in April 1999 led some to argue that Ms Barshefsky was incapable of garnering political support in Washington, despite her respected ability to drive hard bargains with America's trading partners. Not surprisingly, Ms Barshefsky disagreed with this viewpoint and her answer showed that the word modesty does not feature in her lexicon. 'You don't survive as a cabinet secretariat in a high-profile position dealing with controversial issues and the most controversial country - China - without being politically very astute,' she said. She described the bilateral deal with China as 'probably the most politically savvy trade deal the US ever put together' to ensure that it satisfied all constituencies. 'What I thought was quite remarkable was that there was not a single senator or congressman, not one, who asked me to go back to get something different or get something more. And that takes a very finely honed political view to pull off.' She also concluded a 'breathtaking' number of other trade deals and won political support for them. Despite the risk of the downturn in the global economy leading to more calls for protectionist measures, Ms Barshefsky believes the trend is still towards open markets. 'I don't see a wholesale turning inward by the large countries or anything close to that, even if economic times get tougher than they are now. In the long run, neither the US nor any other country can afford to turn inward,' she said. Graphic: face03gbz Biography Charlene Barshefsky, 51, was the United States trade representative from 1996 to 2001 during which she concluded a landmark bilateral trade areement with China in 1999. Ms. Barshefsky is now the senior international partner at the law firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and serves on the board of American Express, Estee Lauder and Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. She is a member of Intel's policy advisory board. Ms. Barshefsky graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1972 and the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC in 1975. She is married with two daughters.