Michelle Obama sets off for China

United States First Lady Michelle Obama heads on her first solo trip to China on Wednesday aiming to build up people-to-people ties while likely setting aside the thornier issues that loom over the Sino-US relationship.

The White House released details of the First Lady's visit on Tuesday and stressed that she will emphasise the message of education and how important it is for young people to know one another and experience each other's cultures.

She will visit Beijing, Xi'an and Chengdu from March 19 to March 26, spending a full day in Beijing with her Chinese counterpart, Madam Peng Liyuan.

And while Mrs Obama will likely not directly address specific bilateral issues, her visit is still expected to play a significant role in advancing ties between China and the US.

On a conference call with reporters, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes said Mrs Obama's trip is an opportunity to break through some of the "mistrust" between the US and China.

"We don't expect the people of China to agree with all of our policy positions at any given moment but the more they understand the United States, the more they understand the President and the First Lady and their values and their priorities, we think the better it is for both of our countries," he said.

"And so I do think it's beneficial that we are able to go beyond simply what may be in the newspaper on a given day, and reaching out and trying to forge these broader connections to people in China," he added.

The meeting of the two First Ladies - the most anticipated aspect of the trip - will come early in the itinerary.

Mrs Obama will meet Madam Peng on her first full day in Beijing, according to a schedule planned by Madam Peng. They will meet at a high school, visit the Forbidden City and then adjourn for a private dinner and performance.

"That is a wonderfully warm and welcoming itinerary that Madam Peng has laid out for the First Lady, and we're looking forward to it," said Mrs Obama's chief of staff Tina Tchen, a first-generation Chinese-American, who will be accompanying the First Lady on the trip.

Mrs Obama, who is travelling with her daughters Malia and Sasha, and her mother Marian Robinson, will cover nearly all of China's major landmarks, including the Great Wall of China, the terracotta warrior museum in Xi'an and the Chengdu Panda base.

She will give two speeches on education and frequently post updates on a blog on the White House website to help teach US students about China.

There are more than 200,000 Chinese students studying in the US and 20,000 US students studying every year in China, said Ms Tchen.

By way of preparation for the visit, Mrs Obama had earlier this month visited a Chinese immersion school in Washington, and asked a class of 12-year-olds for tips on visiting China.

simlinoi@sph.com.sg


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