Senior U.S. lawmaker pushes Biden on prisoners ahead of Xi meeting -letter

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) speaks at a committee meeting after assuming the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the U.S. Capitol on Capitol Hill in Washington

By Patricia Zengerle and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged President Joe Biden to use his upcoming meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to push for the release of Americans detained for years in China, according to a letter seen by Reuters on Tuesday.

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin wrote to Biden to push for immediate freedom for Mark Swidan, Kai Li and David Lin, whom the U.S. government has classified as wrongfully detained in China. Republicans and other Democrats have also called for their release.

Biden and Xi are holding talks around events at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco, as the United States seeks to recover from a diplomatic crisis over its downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the United States in February.

"With the holiday season approaching, and the opportunity to start the New Year on a more positive note in bilateral U.S.-China relationships, I implore you to secure commitments from president Xi to release these Americans immediately," Cardin wrote.

Cardin also asked for the release and safety of U.S.-based journalists' family members whom he said are missing, jailed or detained in China due to their connection to the journalists.

Families of Americans the U.S. government has classified as wrongfully detained in China have also repeatedly urged the government to prioritize the release of their loved ones in talks with Chinese officials.

Katherine Swidan said she spoke to U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns about her son Mark over the weekend, but called the conversation "disappointing" because Burns would not say whether Biden would raise Mark’s name with Xi.

"China only respects strength," she said, adding that she was frustrated because the Biden administration did not appear to have a plan to get U.S. detainees out of China.

A State Department spokesperson commented that the department has no greater priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens and noted that it continually raises wrongfully detained U.S. nationals during engagements with senior Chinese officials.

China says such cases are handled according to law.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Michael Martina; Editing by Stephen Coates)