President Obama sidestepped a question about Chinese dissident Chen Guangchen on Monday, refusing to confirm that the blind lawyer is under U.S. protection in China or that American diplomats are attempting to negotiate an agreement for him to receive asylum.
"Obviously, I'm aware of the press reports on the situation in China, but I'm not going to make a statement on the issue," the president said at a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko.
He added: "What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China the issue of human rights comes up."
Obama declined to provide any information as his administration and the Chinese government sought to prevent the biggest human rights issue since Tiananmen Square demonstrations to disrupt high-level strategic and economic talks set to begin in Beijing on Thursday.
The two governments have signaled that the global economic, North Korea, Iran and Sudan hold far more significance in U.S.-Chinese relations than the fate of one man. Thus, the president's reluctance to comment on Chen's status was in keeping with a view presented in both countries that the dissident is an invisible man.
Earlier, State department spokesman Victoria Nuland was also tight-lipped.
"I have nothing for you on anything having to do with that matter," she responded repeatedly to reporters' questions before Obama's news conference. She confirmed that the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, Kurt Campbell, is in Beijing to prepare for the fourth round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, she refused to say if he was discussing Chen and pointedly refused to utter the dissident's name.
A U.S. rights campaigner, Bob Fu, has said U.S. and Chinese officials are ironing out a deal to secure American asylum for a blind Chinese legal activist who fled house arrest, with an agreement likely before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives this week.
Campbell arrived in Beijing early Sunday, at least a day ahead of schedule and, according to activists, is in intensive discussions with the Chinese to resolve the Chen matter before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner get there. But Nuland said the meetings will go on as planned.
"Both sides want to solve this in a low-key manner and they do not want this to dominate other issues in the (strategic and economic) dialogue so that's why they are working hard to find a speedy solution," said Fu of the rights group ChinaAid, which was involved in Chen's escape from house arrest last week and his subsequent arrival into the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing.
Despite the silence, the handling of his case -- the most serious U.S.-China rights crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the most serious overall since an American spy plane was forced to land on China's Hainan Island in 2001 -- will have profound ramifications on both sides of the Pacific.
Obama's options are limited. Facing a tough fight for re-election in November, he cannot afford to ignore the situation. Doing nothing to help a visually impaired, self-taught lawyer who has fought against forced abortions and corruption in China would open Obama up to attacks from his presumed Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. It would also draw intense criticism from the human rights community in the United States, one of his core constituencies.
But at the same time, pressing the issue too hard may prompt a backlash from China, on which the U.S. is increasingly reliant for foreign capital and support as it seeks to lead the global economic recovery, deal with North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs and prevent a potential war between Sudan and South Sudan.
The key to resolving the situation may well rest with an aging cadre at the top of China's Communist Party, who could either promise protection for Chen and his family in China or allow him to leave the country, possibly even to Hong Kong or Macao, as they prepare for their own leadership transition later this year.
"Mr. Chen prefers to stay in China if he and his family's safety can be guaranteed. In the current environment in China that might not be possible so a viable solution is to have him and his family come to the U.S.," said Fu. He said a face-saving option may be to let Chen and his family come to the U.S. for medical treatment.
The ouster of powerful politician Bo Xilai following a deputy's visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February has already laid bare some of the party's dirty laundry ahead the changes and the Chinese will be loath to lose more face over Chen, whose case was raised repeatedly by American officials, including Clinton herself, until the information blackout began last week.
Human rights has been a distasteful issue for Beijing for decades and it has criticized the U.S. approach as lecturing. Clinton made waves on her first trip abroad as secretary of state when she said that human rights could not dominate the entire agenda with China at the expense of other pressing issues.
Her comments drew fire at the time, but the relationship has clearly evolved as global priorities have shifted.
While China in the 1990s was in need of foreign investment and diplomatic partners and was willing to send jailed dissidents into exile to get them, Beijing sees little need for such concessions now, with its diplomatic clout and coffers bulging with foreign exchange. As the first and second largest economies, the U.S. and China have intertwining interests, and as the reigning superpower and burgeoning world power, they are frequently jostling for advantage across the globe.