Washington was yesterday scrambling to limit possible damage to the US-China relationship ahead of a long-scheduled visit to Beijing by Hillary Clinton, after a Chinese dissident who escaped house arrest took shelter in the US embassy in Beijing.
Analysts warned that the apparent flight of Chen Guangcheng into the arms of US consular officials in Beijing will present an awkward dilemma for Washington and risks further complicating already fraught ties between the two powers. Several other critics of the government accused of helping him in his daring escape have been rounded up by the Chinese security police.
It adds to the "perfect storm" that was already gathering because of hints by Washington that it may sell fighter jets to Taiwan, said Chris Johnson, a former CIA China analyst. It also comes after the recent purging of the popular provincial communist chief, Bo Xilai, after one of his aides took refuge in a US consulate in Chengdu.
"For the conspiracy-minded in Beijing, and there are plenty of them, they will see these things as completing the circle of a US containment strategy designed to stifle China's rise," said Mr Johnson, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This could be the biggest bilateral mess that we've faced in a very long time."
Despite the new flap the annual high-level talks due to begin in Beijing on Thursday will go ahead, an official with the State Department said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead a delegation of US officials, including the US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. The Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, was dispatched yesterday to try to contain any last-minute crisis due to the Chen affair.
There has been no official comment from the US on the whereabouts of Mr Chen, a legal expert put under house arrest after being released from prison in 2010 for accusing China of conducting late-term abortions and sterilisations as part of its one-child policy. However, the Texas-based Christian human rights group, ChinaAid, said he was in the US compound in Beijing.
"This is a pivotal moment," said Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid. "The Obama administration must stand firmly with him (Chen) or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom."
White House aide John Brennan said yesterday he was confident President Obama would find a way to keep the Chen affair from derailing relations. "The President tries to balance our commitment to human rights, making sure that the people throughout the world have the ability to express themselves freely... but also that we can continue to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas," he told Fox News.
A Chinese ministry source suggested that his government is anxious not to jeopardise the talks. "It's too important to China," he said. "They will separate out Chen from the dialogue. China really needs this dialogue... because the relationship with the United States is extremely important to China and this is a sign of commitment and even of friendship."
He added: "I predict that if Chen is in the embassy then he won't get out for years. But it will merely be an irritant to the Chinese. They won't do anything in retaliation. They will compartmentalise it from the far more important issues there are between China and the US."
Mr Chen's case echoes that of Fang Lizhi, a dissident who sought refuge in the US embassy following the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. He spent a year in the US embassy before being allowed to leave for America.