Centre stage: China's President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan. Photo: AP
The hope that this weekend's summit between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping might inject a new warmth into US-China relations suffered a setback when the White House announced that Michelle Obama would not be joining her husband.
Her office cited domestic responsibilities for not attending - it is the last week of the school year for the Obamas' daughters Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11 - but the move leaves China's first lady, Peng Liyuan, to attend the summit without her American counterpart.
China experts warned that Mrs Obama's decision to stay in Washington could have an unwelcome chilling effect on a summit that White House officials have billed as an "unprecedented" opportunity to heal divisions between the world's two biggest economies.
Missing the summit: Michelle Obama. Photo: AP
Her absence may be interpreted by the face-conscious Chinese bureaucrats and public as a deliberate snub, US and Chinese analysts said. The Chinese had hoped that their country's first lady would dazzle America during the two-day summit at the Sunnylands ranch in Palm Springs which opens on Friday and which both sides have trumpeted as an attempt to kick-start more constructive relations.
Zhang Ming, a political scientist from China's Renmin University, predicted that Mrs Obama's absence would "not go down very well" in Beijing.
"First lady diplomacy is also very important and the US side has failed to cooperate," he said. "According to normal diplomatic etiquette, this is very strange. It shouldn't be like this.
Wooing their hosts: China's President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan sit next to a child during their visit to a family at a coffee farm in Costa Rica. Photo: Reuters
"Maybe Michelle [Obama] doesn't like Xi Jinping - or maybe she is just really busy. But being busy shouldn't be an excuse for missing an event like this."
Several leading US commentators agreed. "Michelle Obama not attending the summit is a diplomatic own-goal that could easily have been avoided," wrote Dan Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tuft's University in Boston. "She should be in California."
Communist Party bosses had seen the meeting as a golden opportunity to deploy Peng Liyuan's much-vaunted charms on the world stage in an attempt to spin a more favourable image of China's leaders, after a decade with the stiff, protocol-obsessed former president Hu Jintao in charge. Ms Peng has taken centre-stage during Mr Xi's tour of Latin America and the Caribbean, exchanging high fives with children and playing the steel drums in Trinidad and Tobago.
Popular: Peng Liyuan. Photo: AFP
"First lady turns on the charm, impresses hosts," the state-run China Daily enthused on Tuesday, noting that the 50-year-old soprano had made an impact "not just with her music, but also her kindness and language capability". Cheng Li, an expert in Chinese politics from Washington's Brookings Institution, told the New York Times that the Chinese would "readily" accept Mrs Obama's family commitments but said her decision "certainly needs some explanation". The Chinese were "extremely sensitive".
Relations between the two powers have been strained in recent years over trade disputes, allegations of Chinese cyber espionage and America's decision to be more assertive in the Asia-Pacific region - a move the Chinese resent.
The Telegraph, London