Flexible Diplomacy: Peng Liyuan Should Revisit US

Four years ago, First Lady Michelle Obama went alone to visit Mexico and Haiti; now, accompanied by her mother and two daughters, she is building flexible diplomacy in Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu. When Xi Jinping greeted Mrs. Obama, he deliberately emphasized the importance of China-U.S. relations. He expressed his treasured friendship with Obama, expressed excitement for The Hague European Summit, and praised the new U.S. ambassador to China, Max Baucus.

The first lady traveling abroad is an important part of all foreign affairs. Although this action has no involvement in the arrangement of foreign exchange policies, it can play a unique function. Whether she is just visiting or inspecting China’s affairs, it often presents a gentle and friendly image. Mrs. Obama’s visit to China has no substantial impact on China-U.S. relations, but it helps ease tension on the shared atmosphere of China and the U.S.

The first lady traveling abroad is unlike the head of state traveling abroad because it usually focuses on soft issues rather than politics. In the six years she has been in the White House, Mrs. Obama has not shown interest in politics; she has shown interest in children’s weight, healthy diets, exercise and care for military dependents, among other issues. In this trip to China, she avoided human rights and trade issues, focusing only on cultural and educational exchange. Washington’s diplomatic push by [Mrs. Obama] could easily be met with goodwill by the Chinese people. This would be helpful for easing China’s public dissatisfaction with the United States and adding momentum to the construction of new relations between them.

Xi Jinping and President Obama further explored the concept of new relations among the two countries in last June’s southern California estate meeting in Sunnyvale; however, there is still a conflict of interest regarding the East and South China Seas. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Beijing this February, he claimed that China-U.S. relations could be amiable and constructive, but he could not deny the fact that bilateral relations have fallen to their lowest in a decade. Ever since Beijing designated the new East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) at the end of last year, the battle between Chinese and U.S. media and public opinion has escalated. Additionally, there’s the dispute over South China’s “Nine-Dash Line,” Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama again, and China remaining neutral in the Ukrainian crisis. China-U.S. relations do not seem to have the constructive friendship that they imagined.

The Ukrainian crisis made Beijing realize that Crimea’s incorporation into Russia may be the beginning of a long spout of antagonism between the U.S. and Russia. During a video with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, Xi stated that “The contingent Ukrainian crisis has its inevitability.” This metaphor refers to the West supporting the Ukrainian opposition pushing its luck only to fall into today’s predicament, as well as to Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressing the need for a political solution. While urging for peace on both sides, U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi has proposed three actions: the establishment of an international coordination mechanism, the prevention of all parties from taking actions that could worsen the situation, and using assistance from international financial organizations to help Ukraine.

The Crimean referendum has also kept Washington on its toes. To meet strategic and practical needs, Putin may seek to exert strength in other regions of the world. Russia has the choice to either strengthen its relationship with Iraq or deepen strategic cooperation with China. In a recent speech in Congress, Putin deliberately expressed his gratitude to China, immediately exposing a clue. If Russia withdraws from its April 2010 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with the U.S., it will undoubtedly compel the United States to rethink Europe’s military deployment and strategic layout. The competition between China-Russia relations and U.S.-Russia relations will be more complicated, and the balanced strategy between U.S. and the Asia-Pacific region may therefore collapse.

Because U.S. military funding is stretched and endless regional conflicts are faced, Washington has no choice but to show goodwill to China. Obama kept silent about the Beijing legislature’s victories concerning the Japan Day and Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day issues. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a rare statement that “The Abe cabinet has no intention to review [the Kono Statement]” and that he is “deeply pained to think of the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering, a feeling [he shares] equally with [his] predecessors,” obviously implying America.

International relations “offensive realism” theorist and University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer recently pointed out in a New York Times article that Obama’s decision to impose sanctions in Russia will not help solve the Ukraine issue, but will create more trouble in the future. This “trouble,” that is, the trouble that emerges from U.S. core interests, can prevent hopes for U.S.-Russia cooperation in dealing with Iran and Afghanistan, and China’s military rise.

Eleanor Roosevelt in World War II, Jacqueline Kennedy in the 1960s, and Hillary Clinton in the 1990s were all vivid examples of soft diplomacy. Mrs. Obama’s role of goodwill ambassador to China this trip makes up for her absence last year, when she could not personally meet First Lady Peng Liyuan. Even though her soft demands will not easily turn the complex China-U.S. relations around, they will help improve China’s negative public perception of the United States, easing tension in the political climate between China and the U.S.

Since China and the U.S. constitute the world’s most important bilateral relations, the European Union attaches great importance to learning their personal relationship. Beijing might consider having Peng Liyuan pay Michelle Obama a return visit to establish “first lady relations.” With visits, exchanges and private friendship as well as by enhancing mutual understanding, trust and improving their impression on the public, they will establish hand-in-hand cooperation and face global and regional issues together.

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