Sometimes, to get the job done right, a friendly face goes further than a closed fist. First Lady Michelle Obama spent Friday in Beijing, the first full day of her maiden voyage to China, laying the groundwork for better relationships between the two countries and touring the country in a show of the less forceful side of American diplomacy.
Accompanied by her daughters and mother, the First Lady arrived in Beijing on Thursday for the start of a 7-day tour of the Middle Kingdom that will take her across the breadth of the rising power. To kick off the trip, Mrs. Obama met with Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinpeng, and visited a local high school. “The relationships between the United States and China couldn’t be more important,” she said before the tour, with a rare blue sky shining for the second day in a row. “And having the opportunity to travel here, to listen, to learn, to hear more about the education initiatives here in this country and to share my travels with students throughout the United States is a very unique experience, and it’s one that I will never forget.”
Mrs. Obama and Madame Peng proceeded to tour to the Beijing Normal School, a facility where students can prepare to attend college in the United States. The two First Ladies observed a robotics class during the visit, along with a ping pong practice area — where Mrs. Obama tried her hand at the sport that famously helped relaunch U.S.-Chinese ties. “We had a wonderful first day here in Beijing,” she said later when meeting with Xi and Peng. “We had an opportunity to meet with students, I tried my hand at ping pong — not so good,” she joked.
After a few more days in Beijing, during which she will meet with Chinese and American students who have studied abroad in each other’s countries, Mrs. Obama and family will leave to explore the rest of the country. In Xi’an, she’ll visit the famous terra cotta soldiers in one of the more touristy stops on her trip. Once she reaches Chengdu, she’ll visit a local high school, speak with U.S. families as the American consulate in the city, and visit the region’s giant panda sanctuary.
Officials briefing the press before her trip maintained that the First Lady will stay away from contentious issues — such as human rights, trade, and cyber security — during her visit. “We don’t think that the First Lady should make this a focus at all of her trip,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said in a briefing last week. “This is a very different purpose.” The United States will “continue to raise those issues in all of our diplomatic contacts with the Chinese,” he said. “I think the First Lady’s message and I think her — the nature of her visit is quite different.”
Along with advancing person-to-person exchanges between the U.S. and China, Mrs. Obama’s trip also serves the purpose of mending a small bit of damage done last year in the personal ties between the leaders of the two wealthiest countries on Earth. Last year, when Xi and President Obama met in a much-heralded low-key summit in California, Peng accompanied the Chinese president. Michelle Obama, however, opted to stay in Washington, prompting a minor diplomatic scandal at the perceived snub.
President Xi was effusive in his praise for President and Mrs. Obama on Friday, calling it a great pleasure that the First Lady had accepted the Chinese invitation to visit their country. “I cherish my sound working relationship and personal friendship I have already established with your husband, and we stay in close touch through meetings, phone conversations and correspondence,” Xi said. Xi and Obama will meet next week on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague and again in the fall during the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) meeting in Beijing. Chinese cooperation is required on a wide range of issues on the U.S.’ agenda, including pressuring Russia over its moves into Ukraine and preventing further aggression from North Korea, making this week’s goodwill trip a move that will could see results in the more traditional areas of hard diplomacy.