Peng Liyuan

Tourism, school stops dominate Michelle Obama's China itinerary

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2014, 3:24am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2014, 3:24am

Sensitive political issues will be far from US first lady Michelle Obama's agenda on her visit to China this week. Officials say she will focus on cultural exchange and relationship building when she meets her Chinese counterpart, Peng Liyuan, for the first time.

The White House has released the full schedule of her week-long trip. Michelle Obama, with her two daughters and her mother in tow, will visit Beijing from tomorrow to Sunday.

Obama and Peng - both highly popular in their countries - will visit a school and the Forbidden City, followed by a private dinner and viewing of a performance.

Michelle Obama had missed meeting Peng and her husband, President Xi Jinping , when they visited California for talks with US President Barack Obama last June. The US first lady decided to stay with her children in Washington, a move some saw as a snub.

"The [upcoming] meeting between the two first ladies proves that some previous rumours [about Michelle's absence] are groundless," said Zhang Zhizhou, a research fellow with Beijing Foreign Studies University's school of diplomacy. "Michelle's visit shows their husbands have mutual trust."

Both women share an interest in cultural and educational issues, and are seen as fashion icons. The visit could also highlight China's experiment with soft diplomacy.

"China was not good at this before," Zhang said. "But Peng has her inherent advantages and can develop such a unique diplomatic relationship with Michelle."

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications for the US president, said sensitive political issues would not be a focus on this week's trip.

Such issues would be reserved for when Xi and Barack Obama meet next week at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, the Netherlands.

"This is the purpose, again, of building those people-to-people connections, of reaching out to young people in China [and] broadening the ties between our two countries," Rhodes said on a conference call.

In Beijing, the US first lady will also deliver a speech to students at the Stanford Centre at Peking University and host a round-table discussion on education. She will visit the Summer Palace and the Great Wall.

She will then head west, first to Xian , Shaanxi province, on March 24 for visits to the Terracotta Warriors and a school. The next two days will be spent in Chengdu , Sichuan province, and feature a stop at the panda centre and lunch at a Tibetan restaurant.