Peng Liyuan

Michelle Obama's visit to China a chance for some gentle diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 7:23am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 2:00am

US first lady Michelle Obama's visit to China - where she will meet her counterpart Peng Liyuan - later this month may help smooth strains between the two countries.

Obama will visit Beijing, Xian and Chengdu with her daughters from March 19-26.

Divisions between the US and Russia over Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine may partly explain why the White House chose this time to use "first lady diplomacy", said Jin Canrong , of Renmin University's School of International Relations.

Hillary Clinton, then first lady, went to Beijing in 1995 to attend a United Nations conference on women and Laura Bush went there with then president George W. Bush in 2002.

"Mrs Clinton's trip was for a multilateral event, not a formal visit, so Mrs Obama's visit will be the first of its kind in recent decades," Jin said.

The first lady, accompanied by her mother and two daughters, is scheduled to visit Beijing from March 20-23, Xian on March 24 and Chengdu from March 25-26. Among her stops in Beijing and Chengdu will be a university and high schools.

Sun Zhe, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University, called the visit an "innovation in diplomacy" and an "extension of Sino-US relations". He said both Michelle Obama and Peng promoted education so their meeting could inspire reforms or innovation in the Chinese system.

Shi Yinhong , an international relations professor at Renmin University, said the trip might at least slightly help improve Sino-US ties.

China's relations with the US have been strained over disputes over territory in the South China Sea and Barack Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama at the White House last month.

Jin said the US was also keen to get diplomatic backing over Ukraine. "The US and Russia are unhappy with each other due to the Ukraine crisis. Both want China's support," he said.

Michelle Obama missed meeting Peng last June when she and President Xi Jinping travelled to southern California. Xi's meeting with Barack Obama was around the time of one of the Obama daughter's birthdays and the White House said Michelle had wanted to be with her.

Another possible reason for the first lady's trip could be to reduce media speculation over her husband's visit next month to Japan and three other Asian nations, Jin said.

"There might be some talk in the media about why China is not on the list of stopovers. So the first lady's trip may help reduce concerns over that," he said.

Barack Obama is expected to visit Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in the autumn.