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China File: What Should Michelle Obama Accomplish on Her Trip to China?

Authors: Orville Schell, Vincent Ni, Leta Hong Fincher, Elizabeth Economy, Robert Kapp, Jindong Cai, and Sheila Melvin
March 28, 2014

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"The altar of wishful thinking is that this trip will in some way influence how Chinese president Xi Jinping directs the Chinese navy to behave on the East and South China Seas or how he responds to Russia's behavior in Crimea."

ELIZABETH ECONOMY: Orville and Vincent have almost persuaded me that U.S.-China relations will best be served if First Lady Michelle Obama's trip to China is little more than a public diplomacy tour de force. Indeed, she is already off to a good start. Chinese press commentary surrounding Mrs. Obama's visit has been glowing.

Yet I can't help but feel that an opportunity is being sacrificed on the altar of wishful thinking. The opportunity is to use the umbrella of education and culture—the focus of the first lady's trip—to engage issues such as restrictions on American films, journalists, and educational institutions in China. These are important issues and the first lady has a unique opening to raise them with the first lady of China, Peng Liyuan, herself a singing sensation and embodiment of Chinese culture. The altar of wishful thinking is that this trip will in some way influence how Chinese president Xi Jinping directs the Chinese navy to behave on the East and South China Seas or how he responds to Russia's behavior in Crimea.

Even beyond the issue of a missed opportunity, I am puzzled at the first lady's apparent decision not to travel or have interviews with journalists during her trip. Certainly she is making herself extraordinarily accessible via social media, and granted, according to the State Department, public diplomacy means"government-sponsored programs intended to inform or influence public opinion in other countries"—not informing or influencing people at home. However, refusing to address the press directly sends the wrong message not only to people in the United States but also to Chinese citizens, and most critically, doesn't reflect the first lady's one policy-related promise: to share American values and traditions.

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