Michelle O. plans soft diplomacy for China

First lady Michelle Obama intends to shy away from divisive issues like human rights and trade during her upcoming trip to China, instead focusing on educational programs and cultural exchanges.

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The first lady and her daughters, Malia and Sasha, will depart Wednesday for a weeklong trip that will see the Obama women meet with students and visit tourist attractions, including the terra-cotta warriors and a panda nursery.

President Obama will not join his family on the trip, which administration officials hope can demonstrate the power of soft diplomacy.

“The nature of her visit is really quite different,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “What the first lady really brings is the power of her own story, the power of American values.”

Rhodes described the visit as a “critical opportunity to continue to build connections with the Chinese leadership and also the Chinese public,” noting that the first lady would meet both with Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan and ordinary students across the Chinese countryside.

“Her visit and her agenda send a message that the relationship between the United States and China is not just between leaders; it's a relationship between peoples,” Rhodes said. “Her focus on people-to-people relations, her focus on education and youth empowerment is one that we believe will resonate with China.”

The Obamas will be joined on their trip by Marian Robinson, the first lady’s mother. Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff and a first-generation Chinese immigrant, said that the family-oriented Chinese leaders and people would “understand the significance” of three generations of the presidential family traveling together.

The trip includes stops in Beijing, the ancient city of Xian, and Western economic hub Chengdu. In Beijing, the first lady will meet with American students studying abroad in China and Chinese students who have visited the United States.

There, the first lady will stress that cultural and educational exchanges are “not only good for those individuals in their own careers but is really vital for our competitiveness in the global economy,” Tchen said.

The first lady will be accompanied by national security staff, but the White House repeatedly depicted the trip as unlikely to focus on contentious foreign policy questions.

The visit comes just weeks after the president welcomed the Dalai Lama at the White House, in a move denounced by Beijing.

At the time, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration was “concerned about continuing tensions and that the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas of China.”

"We will continue to urge the Chinese government to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives without preconditions as a means to reduce tensions," he said.

Rhodes insisted the first lady’s trip was not meant as an olive branch after that visit.

“We had planned this trip long before the Dalai Lama visit,” he said, adding that there was “no question or dispute on where the United States stands on … human rights.”

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