China’s leaders have been accused of delivering a calculated diplomatic snub toBarack Obama after the US president was not provided with a staircase to leave his plane during his chaotic arrival in Hangzhou before the start of the G20.
Chinese authorities have rolled out the red carpet for leaders including India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, and the British prime minister, Theresa May, who touched down on Sunday morning.
But the leader of the world’s largest economy, who is on his final tour of Asia, was forced to disembark from Air Force One through a little-used exit in the plane’s belly after no rolling staircase was provided when he landed in the eastern Chinese city on Saturday afternoon.
When Obama did find his way on to a red carpet on the tarmac below there wereheated altercations between US and Chinese officials, with one Chinese official caught on video shouting: “This is our country! This is our airport!”
“The reception that President Obama and his staff got when they arrived here Saturday afternoon was bruising, even by Chinese standards,” the New York Times reported.
Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China, said he was convinced Obama’s treatment was part of a calculated snub.
“These things do not happen by mistake. Not with the Chinese,” Guajardo, who hosted presidents Enrique Peña Nieto and Felipe Calderón during his time in Beijing, told the Guardian.
“I’ve dealt with the Chinese for six years. I’ve done these visits. I took Xi Jinpingto Mexico. I received two Mexican presidents in China. I know exactly how these things get worked out. It’s down to the last detail in everything. It’s not a mistake. It’s not.”
Guajardo added: “It’s a snub. It’s a way of saying: ‘You know, you’re not that special to us.’ It’s part of the new Chinese arrogance. It’s part of stirring up Chinese nationalism. It’s part of saying: ‘China stands up to the superpower.’ It’s part of saying: ‘And by the way, you’re just someone else to us.’ It works very well with the local audience.
“Why [did it happen]?” the former diplomat, who was ambassador from 2007 until 2013, added. “I guess it is part of Xi Jinping playing the nationalist card. That’s my guess.”
Bill Bishop, a China expert whose Sinocism newsletter tracks the country’s political scene, agreed that Obama’s welcome looked suspiciously like a deliberate slight intended “to make the Americans look diminished and weak”.
“It sure looks like a straight-up snub,” Bishop said. “This clearly plays very much into the [idea]: ‘Look, we can make the American president go out of the ass of the plane.’”
Bishop added: “We’ve no proof. It could clearly just be a cock-up but it would be a stunningly large cock-up given how well these people plan for all these events and especially for something like the G20. The idea that they have been preparing for well over a year for the G20 but suddenly there be a malfunction with the ramp just for one president … that really strains credulity.”
A Chinese foreign ministry official involved in the visit denied it had been a snub,telling the South China Morning Post the US delegation had declined to use the usual rolling red-carpet staircase.
“It would do China no good in treating Obama rudely,” the official, who declined to be named, was quoted as saying.
“China provides a rolling staircase for every arriving state leader, but the US side complained that the driver doesn’t speak English and can’t understand security instructions from the United States; so China proposed that we could assign a translator to sit beside the driver, but the US side turned down the proposal and insisted that they didn’t need the staircase provided by the airport,” the official added.
The US president offered a diplomatic reply when asked to comment on the airport “kerfuffle” on Sunday during a joint press conference with Theresa May.
“I wouldn’t over-crank the significance of it because, as I said, this is not the first time that these things happen and it doesn’t just happen here. It happens in a lot of places including, by the way, sometimes our allies,” Obama said, adding that “none of this detracts from the broader scope of the relationship”.
Obama suggested his Chinese hosts might have found the size of the US delegation “a little overwhelming”.
“We’ve got a lot of planes, a lot of helicopters, a lot of cars and a lot of guys. If you are a host country, sometimes it may feel a little bit much.”
Susan Rice, the US national security adviser, admitted she had been surprised by the handling of the president’s arrival. “They did things that weren’t anticipated,”she told reporters.
The New York Times said Rice had appeared “baffled and annoyed” that the president had been forced to leave Air Force One through a door normally reserved for high-security trips to places such as Afghanistan.
In the lead-up to the final meeting between Obama and Xi, experts had predicted the pair would seek to part ways on a positive note with the announcement that the world’s two largest polluters would ratify the Paris climate agreement.
However, Obama’s unconventional welcome – and a series of subsequent skirmishes and quarrels between Chinese and US officials and journalists – were a reminder of the underlying tensions.
The Washington Post said Obama’s bumpy landing in China was “a fitting reflection of how the relationship between these two world powers has become frayed and fraught with frustration”.
“I think this time … maybe the seams were showing a little more than usual in terms of some of the negotiations and jostling that takes place behind the scenes,” Obama admitted on Sunday.
Official statements issued by both sides on Saturday, as the pair held more than four hours of bilateral meetings, hinted at some of the disagreements between the world’s two largest economies.
According to a White House statement, Obama told Xi of “America’s unwavering support for upholding human rights”.
“China opposes any other country interfering in its internal affairs in the name of human rights issues,” Xi told Obama in response, according to Xinhua, Beijing’s official news wire.
Bishop said: “Other than in climate, in most areas of the US-China relationship there is increasing amounts of friction and some actually increasingly quite hot friction around the South China Sea and some of these military [interactions] in the region.”
“The US is looking a little weak and a little tired and I think [Beijing is] happy to put anybody in their place when they can. I think they see the opportunity to make Obama look weak,” he added.
Both Bishop and Guajardo said the reported confrontations between Chinese and US officials and journalists following Obama’s arrival in Hangzhou were par for the course in China. “That is just typical China. I remember when my president came, one of the Mexican press corps came out of it with stitches,” Guajardo recalled.
But Obama’s unceremonious arrival was unusual and surely deliberate, the former Mexican ambassador added. “Just as the Chinese are about giving face they are also about not giving it and letting you know that they are not giving it to you … They don’t overlook these things by mistake. It’s not who they are. It’s not the way they do these things,” he said.