Updated: 03/18/2014 03:47 | By Agence France-Presse

Michelle Obama looks to ease mistrust on China trip

Michelle Obama will look to dispel growing mistrust between the United States and China through a weeklong tour of the Asian power focused deliberately on soft issues, officials said Monday.

Accompanied by her two daughters and mother, the US first lady will head Wednesday on a tour to some of China's most celebrated sites including the Great Wall, the ancient terracotta warrior sculptures of Xian and a panda preserve.

White House officials said that Michelle Obama would not take up the myriad disputes between the Pacific powers but would instead speak about educational exchanges and try to emphasize US goodwill toward the Chinese people.

"I think it is important to break through that mistrust and the first lady's visit is an opportunity to do that," Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters.

"It's an opportunity to address public opinion in China which sometimes can shift back and forth based on whatever the tension of the day is -- not unlike, frankly, the public opinion of China in the United States," he said.

The Chinese public's opinion of the United States has significantly worsened from highs when President Barack Obama took office in 2009. Forty percent of Chinese had a favorable opinion of the United States in last year's Pew Research Center survey -- a figure far below that in Western and African nations but still higher than the rate in most of the Islamic world.

The world's two largest economies have been increasingly at odds over issues that include allegations of mass Chinese cyber-espionage and Beijing's increasing assertiveness in territorial disputes with US allies Japan and the Philippines. 

While his wife is visiting China, President Obama will take up the gamut of US-China relations in a meeting with counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of next week's nuclear security summit in The Netherlands, Rhodes said.

Rhodes hoped that Michelle Obama would indirectly highlight one frequent US concern in China -- human rights -- by her very background. Michelle Obama was raised in humble circumstances in Chicago before becoming a successful lawyer, while her husband is the first president from the historically persecuted African American minority.

"I think the first lady's story itself sends a powerful message about the ability of someone from a disadvantaged economic background, from a minority group, to ascend to the positions that she did in private life and now as first lady," Rhodes said.

The United States has frequently urged China to improve treatment of minorities. President Obama last month voiced concern for human rights in Tibet as he met the region's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, triggering a protest by Beijing.

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