* Dissident case threatens to overshadow U.S.-China talks
* Case could mark personal test for Clinton
* U.S. seeks to balance rights, stability in China ties
By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON, April 30 U.S. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton hoped to highlight stability during her trip to
China this week, but instead flies into a diplomatic hurricane
sparked by the dramatic escape of a blind Chinese human rights
activist now believed to be under U.S. protection.
Clinton is due to depart Washington late on Monday for
Beijing, where she will be joined by Treasury Secretary Timothy
Geithner and other U.S. officials for high-level meetings with
their Chinese counterparts on Thursday and Friday.
But all eyes will be on how Clinton handles the delicate
case of Chen Guangcheng, who rights advocates say is sheltering
at the U.S. embassy in Beijing after a daring flight from house
arrest in his native Shandong province.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Clinton declined to comment
on the Chen case but pledged to press China's leaders on human
"A constructive relationship includes talking very frankly
about those areas where we do not agree, including human
rights," Clinton said. "That is the spirit that is guiding me as
I take off for Beijing tonight."
Managing the fallout will mark a personal test for Clinton,
who has said she will step down at the end of the year after
winning high public approval ratings as America's top diplomat.
Chris Johnson, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, said the Chen case could quickly
overwhelm the broader discussions if it is not resolved soon.
"It seems hard to me to fathom how they're going to focus on
the many important geostrategic issues we've got - Syria, Iran,
North Korea - plus the serious economic issues that they were
going to focus on with this media circus going on."
A senior U.S. diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt
Campbell, was sent to Beijing over the weekend in what analysts
said was an attempt to broker a deal over Chen that could allow
all sides to save face.
President Barack Obama, maintaining the strict U.S. official
silence on the Chen case, declined to answer a question about it
on Monday but said China would be stronger if it took steps to
protect human rights.
OFTEN AT ODDS
Clinton included China on her first overseas trip as
secretary of state in 2009, and has worked to stabilize ties
between two economic giants that are often politically at odds.
Clinton's relationship with her chief Chinese counterpart,
State Councilor Dai Bingguo, is said to be cordial, but she has
clashed publicly with Beijing on issues including Syria and
Internet freedom - drawing rebukes from China's state-run media.
Her task could be further complicated by a White House
letter last week which indicated that the Obama administration
may consider new arms sales to Taiwan. That could infuriate
Chinese leaders already unsettled by the U.S. "pivot" toward
stepped up engagement across the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite the friction, analysts said Clinton has earned a
reputation among Chinese decision-makers as a firm but fair
negotiator which may pay dividends as the two sides struggle to
resolve the immediate impasse over Chen.
"Her overall management, attention to communication and
ability to listen have made the prospect of this getting
resolved a lot better," said Douglas Paal, a former senior U.S.
government official now at the Carnegie Endowment for
"There is a diplomatic way out of this, although the
question is whether China has the political capacity to make a
deal. The quieter we are officially, the better the outcome
likely will be."
With the United States gearing up for the November
presidential election and China also negotiating a political
transition, both sides have clear interest in keeping one of the
world's most important bilateral relationships on track.
The Chen case follows an incident in February when a Chinese
official visited the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, launching a
broader scandal that saw senior leader Bo Xilai removed from his
top leadership post in one of the most divisive political
upheavals in China in decades.
With yet another unexpected visitor now said to be holed up
at a U.S. diplomatic facility, neither the U.S. nor the Chinese
government has publicly commented on the Chen case and both have
declared that this week's talks will take place as planned.
U.S. officials had suggested modest hopes for this year's
meetings, even before the Chen storm broke.
There has been some progress on economic disputes, including
Washington's demands for Beijing to allow its currency to
appreciate further, do more to protect intellectual property
rights and remove artificial barriers to its markets.
And officials also say China is gradually becoming more
cooperative on major international issues such as the drive to
pressure Iran and North Korea on their renegade nuclear programs
and to defuse the mounting political crisis in Syria.
"The Chinese have taken steps - often just baby steps, but
steps - on literally all of the big issues that concern us, so
the administration can take some credit for that," said Nina
Hachigian, a national security expert at the Center for American
Progress, a liberal think-tank.
But other analysts say the annual meeting has achieved few
concrete results, and that differences on human rights, Internet
policy and the South China Sea could still set Washington and
Beijing back on a collision course in years to come.