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Orville Schell:  Looking at the challenges of rectifying U.S.-China relations and building some semblance of the “new kind of a big power relationship” alluded to by presidents Obama and Xi at Sunnylands last year, will most certainly require a multi-stage ongoing effort. Michelle Obama’s trip to China with her mother and her two daughters this week could prove to be a very constructive next step.

Because her trip offers a symbolic expression of a genuine commitment on the part of the U.S. to doing everything it can to achieve a breakthrough in relations with China, the First Lady’s visit could end up being a very sage prelude to the next official meeting between the American and Chinese presidents in the Hague on March 24-25. Indeed, confronting all the problems that divide our two countries —maritime/island disputes, cyber-warfare, human rights, the Ukraine, nuclear proliferation, etc.—will pose an infinitely arduous challenge to Presidents Obama and Xi, but they are inescapably the responsibility of the two presidents, not the First Ladies. So, while these many difficult issues will remain unaddressed by Michelle Obama and Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan, what makes this visit to China a smart move by the White House is that it will enable the U.S. to demonstrate in the most obviously friendly way the importance it attaches to our future bilateral relationship with the P.R.C. It will allow a highly symbolic interaction between the countries without the two countries needing to get into the host of contentious issues which divide us and which have no easy answers.

But, we should be realistic. Michelle Obama’s trip is only a gesture, albeit an important one. For our two presidents to actually hit the proverbial “reset” button, they will have to evince some real leadership, innovative thinking, even risk taking. Such leadership has not yet been fully manifested. If they fail, the world will then also fail in resolving a range of critical and antagonistic global problems— including nuclear proliferation, climate change, cyber-hacking, pandemics, and other challenges that can only be met through real bilateral cooperation.

If the idea of establishing “a new kind of big power relations” is ever to be made more than an empty slogan, it will be necessary for both sides to become far bolder in their approaches to each other. Having dispatched his family to China on what could be described literally as a “panda-hugging” expedition, President Obama might—if only he will take up the invitation— be firmer in his representations with President Xi when he meets him later at the Hague.

Both sides yearn for the kind breakthrough in the interaction between the U.S. and China that has eluded us since the 1972 Nixon/Kissinger-Mao/Zhou breakthrough, and then the Jimmy Carter-Deng Xiaoping recognition breakthrough in 1979. We yearn for such moments redux because they were the occasions when our leaders actually did reach for the stars and did last succeed in recasting our bilateral relations. To again accomplish such a breakthrough moment, both Obama and Xi are going to have to wade not only into the host of difficult issues which divide us, but also to find new ways to set aside some of the historical suspiciousness with which leaders of our two countries have approached each other lately. That is a far taller order, and not one that a Michelle Obama visit will accomplish. But then her trip does not aspire to such a grand accomplishment. Her visit could serve as an important next step in the far longer process of establishing “a new form of big power relations,” and a smart way to move the relationship forward by expressing the United States’ commitment to “working things out.” But, it will be no a substitute for the kind heavy lifting that will come next.


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