A senior US diplomat arrived in China on a hurried mission yesterday as new problems — from possible US arms sales to Taiwan to the custody of a blind dissident — threaten to complicate relations with Beijing ahead of high-level talks.
US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell avoided reporters and the US embassy declined to discuss his agenda. His trip, originally scheduled for later this coming week, comes after the White House said it was considering selling new warplanes to Taiwan and after dissident legal activist Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) fled house arrest and ended up, rights campaigners said, in the protection of US officials.
Both Chen’s case, if he’s in US custody, and that of Taiwan touch on Beijing’s red lines against what it sees as meddling in China’s domestic affairs. Beijing will have ample opportunity to voice its displeasure at an annual confab on Thursday and Friday attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner and dozens of other officials.
The meeting, known as the strategic and economic dialogue, is supposed to provide ballast for the often-bumpy relations by giving top-level officials a chance to discuss problems and look for solutions.
Chen’s case is likely to complicate things further. A campaigner against forced abortions and sterilizations, Chen spent four years in prison and then was kept in punitive house arrest for the past 20 months, despite the lack of legal grounds for doing so.
Clinton and other US officials have repeatedly raised his case, though Beijing did nothing to abate the confinement, occasional beatings and other harsh treatment.
If Chen is now in the US embassy or other diplomatic grounds, Beijing is likely to see it as evidence that Washington wants to subvert the government by aiding and encouraging political dissent.
Complicating any negotiations over Chen is the treatment of his family. While Chen escaped a week ago from Dongshigu village in Shandong Province and made it 600km northwest to Beijing, his wife and child were left behind and their whereabouts are unknown.
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will meet US President Barack Obama at the White House today, followed by a gala dinner thrown by Clinton, who will fly out immediately afterward for Asia.
Clinton will then head to India after a stop in Bangladesh. Clinton and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will also hold their first joint talks today with counterparts from the Philippines, in a sign of a growing alliance.
Clinton, on her last visit to India last year, urged a greater global role for New Delhi and said that the US-Indian relationship would shape the 21st century.
However, momentum has since cooled, with some US lawmakers for the first time in years criticizing India because of its refusal to fall immediately into line with a US law threatening sanctions on countries if they buy oil from Iran.
US businesses have also been concerned as India’s parliament has balked on some of their main wishes, including opening up to foreign retail giants such as Walmart and providing nuclear firms exemptions from liabilities.