WASHINGTON — The diplomatic row over Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng could hurt Sino-US efforts to cooperate on Iran, Syria and key economic issues but both sides want to contain the fallout, experts said.
The dispute has sent a cloud over the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were conducting Thursday and Friday with Chinese leaders in Beijing.
In her opening remarks, Clinton did not mention Chen by name, but told her Chinese hosts, including President Hu Jintao, that they cannot deny the "aspirations" of their citizens "for dignity and the rule of law."
In his own opening remarks, Hu called for the United States and China to respect each other's concerns and warned that any worsening of relations posed "grave" risks for the world.
It was not clear whether the dispute has had an immediate impact on the multi-topic dialogue or whether it could hurt the longer term relationship between the world's two largest economies.
"It's impossible to predict going forward," State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters when asked if the dispute would affect the other areas of US-China relations.
"But I think that... this relationship is strong enough... where we're going to cooperate in areas where we share common views, but we're also going to continue to talk about tough issues," Toner added.
US officials said they always raise alleged Chinese human rights abuses when they meet with their Chinese counterparts, but Beijing is particularly furious with Washington over its handling of Chen's case.
It has demanded a US apology after Chen -- who exposed forced abortions and sterilizations under China's "one-child" policy -- escaped from house arrest and spent six days at the US embassy in Beijing until he left on Wednesday.
The United States said Thursday it was in talks with Chen about his future, after he expressed fears for his safety and pleaded to be taken abroad.
Bonnie Glaser, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she doubts the United States will give China an apology for what it considers a human rights and humanitarian issue.
But she told AFP that China's decision to send Defense Minister Liang Guanglie to the United States next week to meet his US counterpart Leon Panetta was a "good sign" that it wants to limit the row's impact on broader ties.
She also said the two sides were likely "engaging seriously" on the broader issues in the Strategic and Economic Dialogue after having invested so much in the preparations -- even if the Chen dispute hovers in the background.
But she warned that, depending how efforts to resolve the dispute are handled, Washington may only fuel China's "deeply-held suspicion" that it is seeking anew to seize an opportunity to destabilize the country.
The eventual sale of US fighter jets to Taiwan -- which Beijing sees as a part of its territory awaiting reunification -- could add fuel to the fire, she added.
Under such a scenario, she said, "it certainly could complicate the cooperation on the broad range of issues that we deal with China on."
After having resisted US calls for tougher sanctions against Tehran, China has released figures showing it has cut imports of Iranian crude. It also appears more cooperative with US-backed efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria.
And China has allowed its currency to rise against the dollar to boost US imports.
Nina Hachigian of the Center for American Progress said "China was taking baby steps but still meaningful steps on issues the United States cares about -- Iran, currency, intellectual property rights enforcement, climate change."
If the dispute over Chen "drags on for weeks, it's possible it can affect some of those issues," Hachigian told AFP.
"It's going to be a significant source of tension in the relationship until it's resolved," she added.
But she said it is possible the dispute can be resolved in a way in which Chen is satisfied and feels he and his family are safe, whether that solution involves his leaving for the United States or even staying in China.