The U.S. and China began their annual human rights dialogue Monday that gives Washington a chance to broach thorny issues but also demonstrates its limited leverage with Beijing.

Human rights groups urged the U.S. to press China over a crackdown on rights lawyers and activists and repression in Tibet — where dozens of Buddhists have set themselves on fire in the past year to protest Beijing's authoritarian rule.

Exiled Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, whose case caused a diplomatic crisis between the two powers this spring, also released a statement, expressing fears for his family members back in China.

The Obama administration says human rights are central to its foreign policy toward China, but as the Asian power's international stature has grown, America's leverage in pressing individual cases appears to have diminished.

The U.S. relies on China as its main foreign creditor, and seeks its help — with mixed success — on a gamut of international issues, including the civil war in Syria and the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.

Underscoring that, White House national security adviser Thomas Donilon is currently in Beijing for talks with senior Chinese officials on security in the Middle East and Asia and other issues.

The two days of closed-door talks on human rights are being held in Washington, led by U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner and Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General for International Organizations and Conferences Chen Xu.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters the U.S. would raise the rule of law, justice for individuals, equality and Tibet. She said Washington's ability to broach such issues with Beijing "speaks to the maturing of our relationship." The U.S. also seeks "appropriate handling and no reprisals" against Chen's family members and supporters who remain in China.

Chen, the blind lawyer who came to the U.S. in May after he escaped a brutal house arrest, said he feared in particular for his 32-year-old nephew, Chen Kegui, who has been charged with attempted homicide and denied independent legal counsel and access to his family.

Chen Kegui, is accused of attacking locals officials with a kitchen knife after they burst into his father's house following Chen Guangcheng's escape to the U.S. embassy, which eventually led to Chen Guangcheng's flight to New York to study.

"There are laws that could protect my nephew — including laws against torture — but some Chinese officials routinely flout the law with impunity," Chen Guangcheng said. "China does not lack laws, but the rule of law."

Skeptics say the human rights dialogues that China holds with the U.S. and other Western powers are a trade-off Beijing makes to fend off critics and preserve ties with important trading partners.

That said, the dialogue with Canada has been moribund since 2006. The European Union is supposed to have two sessions a year with China, but for two years Beijing has refused to agree on dates and so scotched a second session. Japan has been denied a full-fledged dialogue and has been relegated to consultations, a step-down in diplomacy.

In late April, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai told reporters that China is willing to engage with the U.S. on human rights as long as the talks are done "on the basis of equality and mutual respect. We hope such discussions can help our American friends have a more accurate understanding of China."

Human Rights Watch said the U.S. should demand public and verifiable changes in policies and practices as a condition for holding the human rights dialogue.

"Another round of exchanges, particularly if there is no public discussion of the talks afterward, will allow the Chinese government to say it is engaging on rights issues while putting off necessary reforms that create a country with the rule of law and respect for basic rights," the group's China director, Sophie Richardson, said in a statement.


Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this report.