WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner headed to Beijing yesterday for economic and security talks, hoping for progress on key issues despite thorny diplomatic questions about the status of blind activist Chen Guangcheng.

This is widely expected to be the last annual Security and Economic Dialogue summit for both Geithner and Clinton, who have said they will not continue in their present roles, even if President Barack Obama wins re-election. China's Communist Party, meanwhile, is planning a leadership transition later this year.

As negotiators tackle big topics such as trade, North Korea and currency, observers are waiting to see whether Geithner's four years of intensive dialogue with Beijing will pay off. Geithner, citing important gains made in earlier discussions, has said he will press for long-sought changes to China's financial system. Among the bright spots has been progress toward closing the yawning trade deficit between the two countries.

But observers say it is hard to predict whether the momentum from earlier talks can be maintained in light of Chen's escape from house arrest last week. The activist lawyer is believed to be receiving shelter and protection from U.S. diplomats in the Chinese capital.

"The Chen situation could overwhelm all of it," one observer said. "This is a bit of a test of the relationship's maturity, to see how they will handle this." -- Washington Post

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