Activist's case casts shadow on talks
High-level Sino-US talks starting in Beijing on Thursday are meant to be an opportunity for the two sides to smooth bilateral ties ahead of a leadership transition in China and a presidential election in the US.
But analysts say the dialogue will be overshadowed by recent political and human rights events in China.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will join Vice-Premier Wang Qishan and State Councillor Dai Bingguo for two days of talks that are expected to address bilateral trade frictions and regional issues such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Analysts said sentiment ahead of the talks was positive, given that Vice-President Xi Jinping visited the US in February. However, the escape of blind activist Chen Guangcheng from house arrest last week has created obstacles to the smooth progress of the talks.
Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner told a press briefing in Beijing last week that human rights would be discussed during the talks, but he did not give specific details.
Both Chinese and US officials have refused to be drawn into the controversy and have declined to confirm whether Chen has taken sanctuary in the US Embassy in Beijing - as claimed by his supporters.
Analysts said the case would put China's human rights record under the spotlight again, and Clinton may press Chen's case and human rights issues during the talks, which Beijing may take as interference into its internal affairs.
'The US may ask China whether Chen's alleged beatings and torture were ordered by the central authorities. This will embarrass Beijing,' said political commentator Li Datong, a former editor at China Youth Daily.
Washington and Beijing would cautiously weigh the benefits of letting Chen go to the US or letting him stay in China - which his supporters say is his preference - but both sides would attempt to appear friendly during the talks, analysts said.
'Both countries will try to minimise the cost they have to pay for Chen's case,' said Shi Yinhong, an expert in US affairs at Renmin University, adding that neither side would want to compromise trade and economic co-operation because of Chen.
Another issue that may infuriate Beijing, and one that could lead to the suspension of bilateral military exchanges, is the White House's plan to sell new US warplanes to Taiwan.
The dialogue is the first high-level meeting between the two nations since the downfall of Bo Xilai , and US officials may seek to learn how the saga is unfolding - an issue that Beijing is reluctant to discuss.
'I imagine the US representatives will be eager to learn as much as they can about how the Bo affair will affect the leadership change in China,' said June Teufel Dreyer, a China watcher at the University of Miami. 'But I also expect that their Chinese counterparts will tell them that the political and economic situations are stable.'
The US has been involved in the saga since February 6, when Bo's former right-hand man Wang Lijun attempted to defect to the US consulate in Chengdu, triggering Bo's downfall. The US has said that Wang stayed in the consulate for more than 30 hours.
Arthur Waldron, an international relations expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said both sides would attempt to play down the incident. 'I think the Americans will be very concerned to make it seem that there is nothing going on. And I think the Chinese will have much the same approach,' he said.
Jin Canrong, a deputy dean of Renmin University's school of international relations, said neither side would play up the issue because 'it creates no benefits'.
Despite the possible challenges, officials from both sides have tried to remain positive ahead of the talks. Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said there was no sign the talks would be postponed and that Beijing was willing to explain its stance on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Deputy Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao also described remarks made by Geithner last week as 'pragmatic'.
Geithner said Beijing had made progress on the appreciation of the yuan, and the US was willing to give China more access to US technologies.
Zhu also said both countries would resume talks on an investment protection agreement.
Analysts said the outcome of the talks was likely to be 'business as usual', sticking to the unresolved issues between the two countries, such as yuan reform.
Sino-US ties cooled late last year with the US spearheading a transpacific partnership trade deal that does not include China, and Washington discussing the South China Sea disputes at the East Asia Summit, a move that Beijing described as 'internationalising' the issue.
Officials attempted to set an upbeat tone for Xi's US visit, which featured goodwill gestures such as the vice-president chatting with Americans he met 27 years ago and local students.
However, analysts said major outcomes were not expected because of uncertainties surrounding the leadership transition in China and November's US presidential election. Both sides might focus more on economic achievements.
'It is difficult to make pledges that the current leaders may not accomplish,' Jin said. 'But still the two sides may try to make some progress on issues like energy co-operation to create a momentum that the dialogue is worth continuing after leadership changes.'