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First Lady's Education Trip to China Employs Soft Diplomacy

First Lady's Education Trip to China Employs Soft Diplomacyi
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March 21, 2014 5:03 PM
First Lady Michelle Obama is in China this week to focus on education and culture. VOA's Carla Babb has our story.
Carla Babb
First Lady Michelle Obama is in China this week to focus on education and culture.

Students at Beijing Normal School eagerly greeted First Lady Michelle Obama on Friday. Many children here dream of attending universities abroad, and one of the school's aims is to help them achieve that dream. Obama's focus on education for this trip is an example of soft diplomacy - attracting Chinese interest in one of the United States' greatest assets.

"They recognize the sort of innovative vitality of the U.S. educational system," said Elizabeth Economy, Asia director for the Council on Foreign Relations. "It’s a very creative system, and one that has produced legions of very successful entrepreneurs and thinkers."

The first lady has drawn criticism for choosing to avoid China's abuses in human rights and international trade on this trip. But Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution said controversy would damage the goal of the trip.

"Hard diplomacy is you go over there and argue with people, soft diplomacy is when you choose not to argue," he said. "And I think that is probably exactly how they want it."

However, Economy said Mrs. Obama's goal as a leader in American society should be to stand up for American ideals.

"I’m not proposing that she go off on a ledge and introduce radically new issues, like what’s going on between China and Japan in the East China Sea, but I do think as long as she’s there, she’s going to be spending a full week in China, that it really is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed," she said.

Economy suggests the first lady highlight U.S.-China disputes tied to culture and education, such as access for American films in the Chinese market and the challenges U.S. educational institutions face when partnering with Chinese schools.

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