Michelle Obama's China trip a success

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:55am

American first lady Michelle Obama has given her husband and other world leaders an instructive lesson in soft diplomacy. Her just-ended week-long trip to China was a success in every way, giving insight into US culture and society while building bridges and sending subtle political messages. There was no lecturing about human rights or telling Chinese how to run their country; instead, she mixed style, grace and good humour with insight into her country and homespun wisdom. It is exactly the sort of approach needed to bring greater goodwill to the complex Sino-US relationship.

The White House made clear before the three-city visit that sensitive topics like human rights would be avoided. Instead, there would be a focus on education and "people-to-people" exchanges. An endearing dose of family values was thrown in by her taking her mother and two teenage daughters with her. A carefully chosen itinerary heavy on culture that included a meeting with Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan , tourist stops in Beijing, Xian and Chengdu , and speeches to students ensured Chinese saw the US in a different light.

Beijing gave the visit prominence, with President Xi Jinping welcoming Obama at the start of the trip. He passed along her greetings when he met President Barack Obama on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in The Hague on Monday. Such warmth was absent when Michelle Obama's predecessors, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, made solo trips to China. Both had loudly criticised Beijing for its human rights record, further straining already delicate ties.

But Obama's soft talk and family-oriented activities did not prevent her from diplomatically imparting political messages. In speeches at Peking University and a high school in Chengdu, she used stories of her own experiences in the US to tell about the value of free expression and the need for tolerance of religions and minorities. Michelle Obama can count her trip a success; her subtle brand of diplomacy is what China and the US need to put their relationship onto a more solid footing.