WASHINGTON Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departed on Monday on a high-stakes trip to China, where the saga of a Chinese rights activist who has reportedly taken refuge at the U.S. embassy threatens to overshadow high-level meetings between the two governments.
Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will lead the U.S. team at the "strategic and economic dialogue" on Thursday and Friday, an annual meeting aimed at broadening ties between the world's two top economies.
But sharp divisions between Washington and Beijing on human rights could dominate the agenda following last week's dramatic escape of lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who activists say has taken refuge at the U.S. embassy after a dramatic escape from house arrest.
President Barack Obama and other officials have declined to answer repeated questions about Chen's whereabouts, underscoring the sensitivity of the situation ahead of the U.S. presidential election and a choreographed leadership change in China's ruling Communist Party.
But Clinton on Monday pledged to press China's leaders on the issue of human rights, which has dropped down the agenda between the two countries in the more than two decades since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was sent to Beijing over the weekend in what analysts say is an effort to forge a last-minute deal over Chen, a blind self-trained lawyer who is one of China's best known rights advocates.
Current and former U.S. officials say possible solutions include Chen going into exile, something associates say he does not want, or being allowed to live in freedom in China, something which may prove difficult for China's leaders to accept.
Clinton herself has in prior public speeches highlighted Chen's case, and both human rights groups and Obama's presumptive Republican challenger in the November elections, Mitt Romney, have called on the United States to ensure that Chen and his family are protected from persecution.
The Chen case has already distracted attention from the two-day talks, which take place amid some progress in long-standing disputes over currency, trade and market access.
The talks will also give Washington a new chance to win more Chinese cooperation on international issues including pressuring Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs, halting Syria's continued crackdown on unarmed protesters and reducing tensions over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
(Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Paul Simao)