By Arshad Mohammed -
WHEN Hillary Clinton made her first trip abroad as secretary of state, she said the United States could not let human rights disputes get in the way of working with China on global challenges.
Now that the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng is under US protection in Beijing, according to a US-based rights group, the United States will find out if China has made the same calculation.
Chen’s escape after 19 months of house arrest and apparent request for US protection comes at a vexing time for both countries, with diplomats preparing for annual economic and security talks in Beijing this week, and with China’s Communist Party trying to contain a divisive political scandal involving a former senior official, Bo Xilai.
Assuming it has Chen, it is inconceivable that the United States would turn him over to the Chinese authorities against his wishes, said current and former US officials.
That leaves China with a choice — let the broader relationship suffer in a standoff with the United States, or seek a compromise, a scenario analyst, current and former officials saw as probable though by no means certain.
“I can’t imagine they will tank the relationship,” said a senior Obama administration official who spoke on condition that he not be identified.
In 2001, relations between Beijing and Washington suffered a plunge after a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and US surveillance plane.
As of yesterday, the United States has not publicly confirmed reports that Chen fled from house arrest in his village home in Shandong province into the US Embassy. China has also declined direct comment on the dissident’s reported escape from his carefully watched home.
But Texas-based ChinaAid said it “learned from a source close to the Chen Guangcheng situation that Chen is under US protection and high-level talks are currently under way between US and Chinese officials regarding Chen’s status.”
The incident will form an unwelcome backdrop for the visit of the US secretaries of state and treasury to Beijing for their Strategic and Economic Dialogue on Thursday and Friday.