Bradley Klapper
and Matthew Lee

WASHINGTON: Less than a week before annual U.S.-Chinese diplomatic and economic talks, relations between the powers risked sharp deterioration Saturday with an escaped Chinese activist reportedly under American protection and a U.S. fighter jet sale to Taiwan under consideration.

Fellow activists say Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who exposed forced abortions and sterilization 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 United States nor Chinese government has confirmed the reports, but the saga could overshadow this 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 of the talks beginning Thursday.

A potential 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, despite their split more than six decades ago.

Chen’s status and the fighter jets represent the latest strains in Washington’s up-and-down relationship with Beijing in recent years. President Barack 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 has had mixed results.

The two issues underscore the fundamental disconnect between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies, the top importer and exporter, and the biggest military and the fastest developing, on issues from human rights and Taiwan to currency policy and combating nuclear-armed North Korea and potentially nuclear-armed Iran.

Talks under way

A Texas group that has been active in promoting Chen’s case said China and the United States were discussing his fate.

“Chen is under U.S. protection and high-level talks are currently under way between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen’s status,” according to the ChinaAid Association. It cited a source close to the situation.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing declined to comment. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said he had no information about Chen’s case.

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 out on the matter and the State Department pretending that nothing unusual was afoot.

After making several public appeals this year for Chen’s release, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland would say only that “we have spoken out about his case in the past.”

“We have always had concerns about this case,” she said Friday, adding: “I don’t have anything current on this issue today.”

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 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.

In February, a former regional chief of police, Wang Lijun, visited a U.S. consulate to raise concerns about the murder of a British businessman and possible links to powerful Chinese politician Bo Xilai. Wang expressed interest in seeking asylum with the United States, but was turned away, raising eyebrows among Republican lawmakers in the United States.

Beijing embarrassed

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, which posted part of it on YouTube.

If Chen is in the U.S. Embassy or with U.S. officials at another location, it is not known how he would be able to leave or where he could go without Chinese permission. There was no extra security outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Saturday.

Chen is widely admired by rights activists in China who last year publicized his case among ordinary Chinese and encouraged them to go to Dongshigu village and break the security cordon. Even Hollywood actor Christian Bale tried to visit, but was roughed up by locals paid to keep outsiders away.

A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever in infancy, Chen served four years in prison for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials confined him to his home. Amnesty International and other human rights groups say he was abused over the last 18 months.