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Michelle Obama lands in Beijing

2014-03-21 09:14 Global Times Web Editor: Li Yan

At the unprecedented invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping's wife, Peng Liyuan, US First Lady Michelle Obama Thursday embarked on an official trip to China, a move that opens up a new diplomatic channel between the two world powers when Washington's foreign policy is put to the test by the ongoing crisis in Crimea.   [Special coverage]

After arriving in Beijing on Thursday, Michelle Obama and her daughters Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12, will stay until Sunday before they travel to Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province, next Monday and later to Chengdu in Southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Michelle's week-long trip marks the third foreign solo trip for the first lady, who is expected to steer clear of controversial issues such as human rights and focus on the topic of education.

"Michelle Obama's visit could be seen as compensation for her absence at last year's meeting between President Xi and President Obama in California. It is the first time that a US first lady has embarked on a solo visit at the invitation of her Chinese counterpart. It marks a diplomatic innovation which carries special symbolic value," Ma Zhengang, a foreign policy advisor to China's foreign ministry, told the Global Times.

Mrs Obama is scheduled to visit a university and a high school in Beijing, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

The two first ladies plan to visit the Forbidden City, have dinner together and attend a performance.

"Although there are a lot of political and diplomatic topics between the two countries, from the point of view of international customs, the interaction between the two first ladies is more likely to focus on 'soft topics' such as culture and education," said Ma.

Ma's point is reflected in a scheduled Saturday speech by Mrs Obama at Peking University, which, according to a White House statement, will discuss the importance of study abroad and other cultural exchanges as well as the stake the two countries have in one another's success.

Her choice of agenda looks different from former US first ladies Hilary Clinton and Laura Bush. In 1995, Hilary Clinton attended the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. She criticized China's human rights records, a move that hurt Sino-US relations.

"The visit of Michelle Obama carries an implicit political agenda, which is to strengthen ties between the two countries. It has come at a critical time when the crisis in Ukraine has challenged US foreign policy. Mrs Obama's visit could open a new but important channel of communication between Beijing and Washington," said Zhang Jie, a professor of international affairs under the Renmin University of China.

"It is rare for China's first lady to play a central role in diplomatic activities, which is why the visit could be seen as the beginning of a new model," Zhang told the Global Times.

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