By Andrew Quinn
BEIJING, May 2 (Reuters) - 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 hand."
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.
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.