President Obama on Monday refused to confirm widespread reports that Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng has sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, but used the opportunity to press China on the issue of human rights.
"I'm not going to make a statement on the issue," Obama said. "What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up.
Chen's escape from house arrest on Friday has put the White House in an awkward spot just days before this week's visit by Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump tweets: 'Trump Russia story is a hoax' Path to 60 narrows for Trump pick Overnight Cybersecurity: New questions for House Intel chair over WH visit | Cyber war debate heats up | Firm finds security flaws in 'panic buttons' MORE and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for the U.S.-China strategic and economic dialogue. The United States needs China's cooperation on issues ranging from the global recovery to the crises in Iran and Syria, but has long championed Guangcheng's right to criticize the country's repressive single-child policy.
Chen's escape has already become an election-year issue, with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney over the weekend calling on the administration to "take every measure to ensure that Chen and his family members are protected from further persecution."
"Any serious U.S. policy toward China must confront the facts of the Chinese government's denial of political liberties, its one-child policy, and other violations of human rights," Romney said. "Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy."
Romney has cast himself as a tough critic of China and has vowed to label it a currency manipulator if he wins the presidency.
The Obama administration for its part has tried to balance human-rights principles with cold geopolitical facts.
"The president tries to balance our commitment to human rights, making sure that the people throughout the world have the ability to express themselves freely and openly," Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan said Sunday. "But also, that we continue to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas."