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 house arrest.
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 the talks will encourage 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 official silence about his fate from both Washington and Beijing has shown their eagerness to contain friction over his case. Relations could easily go awry, especially with the ruling Communist Party wrestling with a leadership scandal and a looming power succession.
"Of course, as the U.S. must realize, this does quite a lot of harm to China-U.S. relations," Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing said of Chen's reported flight into U.S. protection.
"In this situation, both sides want to restrict the impact of this (Chen) incident. But whether they can find a way to resolve the problem relatively quickly depends on how the dialogue and discussions go," Shi added.
Before leaving for China 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 give Washington a chance to push China to pressure Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs, 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. It also worries 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
Washington is preoccupied with President Barack Obama's bid for re-election late this year, but ructions in Chinese domestic politics have dogged ties, causing the Obama administration to tread carefully in dealing with Beijing which faces a leadership succession late this year.
"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."
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.
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 talks.
Chen, a self-taught 40-year-old legal activist, escaped house arrest in Shandong province over a week ago and travelled to the capital with the help of supporters. He had been locked up in his home village for 19 months by officials who saw him as a troublesome symbol of resistance to party policies.
Washington had already become entangled in Chinese political upheavals in February, when Wang Lijun, a vice mayor in Chongqing in southwest China, fled to a U.S. consulate for a day and denounced his boss, Bo Xilai, and Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, whom Wang accused of killing a British businessman, Neil Heywood.
Bo was later removed from his posts and his wife Gu is under criminal investigation over Heywood's death. The United States has also avoided making detail comment over that scandal.
On Monday, Obama nudged China to improve its human rights record. 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.