Diplomatic crisis shouldn't derail critical bilateral efforts.
(Note to readers: The Associated Press reported early Wednesday that Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. embassy after being assured of his safety, according to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)
Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident who courageously escaped from house arrest into the safekeeping of U.S. officials, is providing an example of how one person can shake an entire system.
Despite all odds, he not only eluded the thugs who have harassed him and his family in their confinement, but bravely has protested the forced abortions and sterilization that are components of China's one-child policy.
He deserves our protection -- as do his family and fellow dissidents. In no way should his safety be a bargaining chip in the bilateral relationship. The sooner Chinese leaders realize that the United States won't bend on its historical and laudable commitment to human rights, the sooner Chen's long-term safety can be assured.
Defining a desirable outcome is difficult. Chen, in a publicly released video appeal to Premier Wen Jiabao, has asked that his human rights be respected in China, which would mean that he and his family would be free from further harassment.
He reportedly does not want asylum in the United States. Should he choose to stay in his homeland, the Obama administration should be wary of nonbinding promises made by the Chinese government.
Sensing the severity of the situation, the U.S. State Department rapidly dispatched an envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, in advance of the scheduled arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior Obama administration officials for a scheduled summit.
Chen's case will be impossible to ignore. But neither country should allow the issue to derail cooperative efforts on several critical challenges.
As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and as a growing global economic and military power, China plays a key role in finding nonviolent solutions to crises in North Korea, Iran, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and elsewhere. And the bilateral trade relationship -- a critical driver of the American, Chinese and even global economy -- must resolve disputes over intellectual property, currency devaluation and trade practices, among other issues.
Meanwhile, another flash point has strained ties: The Obama administration is considering selling new warplanes to Taiwan.
So there is every incentive for quiet, calm diplomacy to resolve the Chen issue. Not surprisingly during this election season, President Obama has already been criticized for not speaking out forcefully enough. But provocative U.S. rhetoric could make it harder for China to step back and move on.
China's government is already reeling from a scandal surrounding prominent politician Bo Xilai, and the country is seeking stability as it goes through its once-in-a-decade leadership succession.
Chinese leaders could turn this crisis into a defining moment for modern China. By ignoring hard-liners and satisfactorily resolving Chen's case, they could begin to repair the damage done by generations of human-rights repression.
Many more reforms would be needed, of course, but this could be a first step in addressing the internal and external calls for China to better reflect global human-rights standards.
In this case, U.S. diplomats have the moral high ground -- and they have Chen. They should cede neither.
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