Obama Meets the Chinese President in Netherlands as the US First Lady Continues Her Soft Diplomacy in China

This week, the Obamas are trying their hands at diplomacy with China – from two very different angles.  


Screen grab from Youku. Michelle Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan on March 21.

US First Lady Michelle Obama made her maiden trip to mainland China for a bit of “soft diplomacy”, focusing on education and youth empowerment during the weeklong trip to three Chinese cities. Setting aside scheduled meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan, her travels in China look no different than those of an inquisitive tourist – in Beijing, she practiced traditional Chinese calligraphy, toured the ancient Forbidden City and ascended the Great Wall.

Accompanied by her mother and two daughters, Ms Obama’s China tour is seen by many as a chance to soothe tensions between China and the US. Relations between the two nations have undergone ups and downs in recent years. The US pivot to the Asia Pacific, part of the Obama administration's strategic rebalancing, has kept China on alert.  

Meanwhile, China’s increasing military assertiveness in the South China Sea and Barack Obama’s two meetings with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, have led the two nations to exchange words of anger towards each other.

While the Chinese audience is inundated this week with reports about Mrs. Obama’s fashion choices and her encounter with China’s first lady, the intended soft diplomacy has been marred by revelations that the US National Security Administration (NSA) breached the internal servers of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. 

The scoop, based on documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported by The New York Times, could overshadow the meeting between US President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit thousands of miles away in the Netherlands.

In the meantime, the US approach to the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine is not likely to go down well with China, a close ally of Russia. When it comes to its foreign policy, China has long maintained a doctrine of “non-interference” in others’ internal affairs. And Crimea scenario haunts Chinese leadership as they fear the same could happen with its Tibet and Xinjiang region. 

Commenting on Chinese popular microblogging site Sina Weibo, Hai Gehua, who is head of a company in Shanxi province, used an analogy to describe Michelle Obama's visit to China:


It’s just like two men getting ready to sign a big business deal. Without knowing each other's psychological bottom line, they sent out their wives to do the warm-up… Tactic of using family ties, something worth learning!

Fan Haitao, a former journalist with Beijing Youth Daily, wrote:


According to the White House, Michelle's visit to China not only could strengthen the ties between the leaders of these two countries, but also the people-to-people exchange. Michelle is going to focus on education and promote the educational programs between China and the United States. Michelle will be visiting Beijing, Xi'an and Chengdu. She will give a speech at Peking University, visit the Terracotta Warriors and finally give another speech at high school No.7 Chengdu.

Despite little mention of politics from Michelle Obama, Oriental Outlooks tried to interpret the meaning behind her visit: 


Starting today, the first lady of the United States, Mrs. Michelle Obama will pay a weeklong visit to China accompanied by her mother and daughters. This is Michelle's first official visit to China without her husband. Although it's been clear the Michelle will not touch upon politics in China, when it comes to the intentions behind the visit, there has been some strong public opinion speculating about her political motives.

Echoing the same sentiment is TakungPao, Hongkong-based newspaper: 


Michelle is going to have lunch in a Tibetan restaurant during her last stop in Chengdu. Analysts pointed out that the arrangement indicates Michelle’s hidden intention of her “flexible diplomacy”, which is to convey the political point of America’s concern for human rights in Tibet.

Qingshui Zhilian wrote:


The game between two big powers are taking place between two first ladies. Peng Liyuan accompanied Michelle for a day and flew to Europe.

Carl Hu contributed Weibo translation to this post.

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