Less than a week before annual U.S.-Chinese diplomatic and economic talks, relations between the powers risked sharply deteriorating Saturday with an escaped Chinese activist reportedly under American protection and a U.S. fighter jet sale to Taiwan now being considered.
Fellow activists say Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who exposed forced abortions and sterilizations as part of China's one-child policy, fled house arrest a week ago and has sought protection at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Neither the U.S. nor Chinese government has confirmed the reports, but the saga looks set to overshadow this coming week's Strategic and Economic Dialogue in the Chinese capital. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are leading the U.S. side at the talks, which begin Thursday.
A potential further complication is a letter from the White House director of legislative affairs, Rob Nabors, to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, explaining that the Obama administration would consider selling new U.S. warplanes to Taiwan. A sale would infuriate China, which considers the island nation an integral part of its state even after their split more than six decades ago.
Chen's status and the fighter jets represent the latest strains in Washington and Beijing's up-and-down relationship in recent years. President Obama has sought to "pivot" American military might and diplomatic energy toward Asia to improve America's standing in the region and check the expansion of Chinese power, and he has achieved mixed results.
A Texas-based activist group that has been active in promoting Chen's case said China and the United States were discussing the fate of the 40-year-old.
"Chen is under U.S. protection, and high-level talks are currently under way between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen's status," said a statement from the ChinaAid Association. It cited a source close to the situation.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing declined to comment.
The case is so sensitive that officials in Washington have been ordered not to say anything about it at all. That was underscored Friday and Saturday by the absolute refusal of the White House to speak on the matter and the State Department pretending nothing unusual was afoot.
The top U.S. diplomat for Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, originally was due in Beijing in the coming week, but he arrived early today in the capital and did not speak to reporters. Earlier, department officials in Washington had ignored or declined to respond to questions about indications that Campbell had been dispatched earlier than planned ahead of the talks to smooth things over with the Chinese.
ChinaAid's founder, Bob Fu, said Chen's case was a benchmark for the United States and its human rights image around the world.
Chen's case has become an embarrassment for Beijing. Fu and Chinese-based activists say he slipped away from his intensely guarded home on the night of April 22. His wife and 6-year-old daughter are still there.
Chen recorded a video as a direct address to Premier Wen Jiabao, condemning the treatment of him and his family and accusing local Communist Party officials by name. Activists sent the video Friday to the overseas Chinese news site Boxun.com, which posted part of it on YouTube.
A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever in infancy, Chen served four years in prison for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and nearby villages. Since his release in September 2010, he has been confined to his home. Amnesty International and other human rights groups say he has been abused over the last 18 months.
The two issues underscore the fundamental disconnect between the world's No. 1 and No. 2 economies on issues from human rights and Taiwan to currency policy and combating nuclear-armed North Korea and potentially nuclear-armed Iran.
Since Obama took office, China's economy has driven global growth while the U.S. has struggled to emerge from its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Greater Chinese assertiveness has resulted in clashes with the United States over naval vessels in the Yellow Sea and American exporters trading with Taiwan; with Japan over fishing rights; and with Southeast Asian nations over claims to the South China Sea.
U.S. arms sales to Taiwan particularly rankle China, and the irritation could grow worse with the emergence of the White House letter.
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949. Despite improving relations over the past four years, China still threatens to attack across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait if the democratic island seeks to declare independence.