By Andrew Quinn
BEIJING May 2 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton arrived in China on Wednesday for top-level talks that
risk being upstaged by the fate of a blind dissident whose
supporters say is under U.S. protection in Beijing after
escaping from detention.
Washington has not even commented on the whereabouts of the
dissident, legal activist Chen Guangcheng, whose plight has
overshadowed the Strategic and Economic Dialogue due to begin on
Thursday. The United States hopes to use the talks to bring
greater Chinese cooperation on trade as well over Iran, Syria,
North Korea and other international disputes.
Chen's friends and supporters have said he is probably
inside the fortress-like U.S. embassy in northeast Beijing.
The silence about his fate from both Washington and Beijing
has shown how eager they are to contain friction over his case.
Relations could easily go awry, especially with the ruling
Communist Party already wrestling with a leadership scandal.
"The vulnerability on the part of the Chinese leadership may
in turn make decision makers even more cautious in foreign
policy issues," said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at
the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington D.C.
"It is also a daunting challenge for the United States to
find a delicate balance between adhering its principles about
human rights, rule of law and democracy on the one hand and
maintaining cooperative and constructive relationship with the
Chinese government on various important issue areas on the other
Before leaving for China late on Monday, Clinton promised to
press China's leaders on human rights, an issue that has dropped
down the agenda between the two countries in the more than two
decades since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
The annual talks also give Washington a chance to push China
to pressure Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programmes,
halting Syria's crackdown on unarmed protesters and reducing
tensions over disputed territories in the South China Sea.
But Beijing has been reluctant to back tougher international
sanctions against Tehran and Pyongyang, and is also worried that
U.S. efforts to strengthen its presence in Asia have emboldened
countries disputing Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
NUDGE ON HUMAN RIGHTS
A commentary in China's official People's Daily overseas
edition said the United States was "disturbing still waters" by
setting up military bases in Asia, selling weapons to the region
and interfering in the South China Sea dispute.
"The United States should be as good as its word and avoid
sending the wrong message to relevant countries and not assist
them in provoking China over the South China Seas dispute or
push them to make reckless moves," it said.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is also set to
attend the talks, which come amid some progress in long-standing
disputes over currency, trade and market access.
But the case of dissident Chen is likely to hover in the
background throughout the two days of dialogue.
Chen, a combative, self-taught lawyer, escaped house arrest
in Shandong province last week and travelled to the capital with
the help of his supporters.
On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama nudged China to
improve its human rights record. But he walked a fine line
between not saying anything that would make it harder to resolve
Chen's case while conveying U.S. concern for human rights and
appreciation for wider cooperation with China.
Chen, who campaigned against forced abortions as part of
China's "one child" population control policy, had been confined
to his village home in the eastern province of Shandong since
2010 after release from jail on charges he rejected as spurious.
"Constant troubles ahead of China-U.S. dialogue," said the
frontpage headline of the Global Times, a tabloid that was the
only Chinese newspaper to mention Chen's case.