Chen, who is blind, escaped from house arrest from his remote village more than a week ago. He reportedly is under U.S. protection in Beijing, but whether he is at the U.S. Embassy, a diplomatic residence or somewhere else is not known.
Obama and other administration officials did little to dispel the confusion about Chen's whereabouts and U.S. involvement Monday.
"Obviously, I'm aware of the press reports on the situation in China, but I'm not going to make a statement on the issue," Obama said during a joint news conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
"What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up," Obama said. "It is our belief that not only is that the right thing to do because it comports with our principles and our belief in freedom and human rights, but also because we actually think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system."
The United States wants China to be strong and prosperous and is pleased with the areas of cooperation between the two superpowers, Obama said, adding, "We also believe that that relationship will be that much stronger and China will be that much more prosperous and strong as you see improvements on human rights issues in that country."
During her media briefing Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland offered multiple versions of "I have nothing for you on that subject."
Nuland did confirm that Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell was in Beijing in advance of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit later this week.
"It is not uncommon for Assistant Secretary Campbell or other assistant secretaries to travel in advance of the secretary's trips," Nuland said.
Asked if his trip had anything to do with Chen, she said, "I don't have anything for you on that."
John O. Brennan, Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser, said Washington is seeking an "appropriate balance" in handling the Chen situation.
"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, but also that we continue to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas," Brennan said on "Fox News Sunday."
"And China-U.S. relations are important," said Brennan, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism. "So, we're going to make sure that we do this in the appropriate way and that appropriate balance is struck."
News of Chen's escape did not appear in China's major state-run media early Monday, while the English-language China Post, published in Taiwan, did carry a report.
The human-rights group ChinaAid of Midland, Texas, said Chen was "under U.S. protection" and "high-level talks" were under way "between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen's status."
Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner were to meet with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing for two days starting Thursday to discuss high-level economic and security-related issues.
Chinese officials said during the weekend the two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue would proceed as planned.
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