U.S. President Barack Obama attempted to tamp down criticism Sunday of what some have called an intentional diplomatic snub by Beijing a day earlier as he arrived for the Group of 20 summit in China.
While authorities in the host city of Hangzhou had rolled out the red carpet for arriving leaders — including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — Obama, who is likely on his final trip to Asia, was forced to disembark Air Force One via a rarely used alternative exit Saturday after no staircase was provided.
But this was only the beginning of a tumultuous day.
On the tarmac Saturday, out of sight of the president, a quarrel also erupted between a presidential aide and a Chinese official who demanded journalists traveling with Obama be prohibited from getting anywhere near him, a breach of decorum observed whenever the American president arrives in a foreign locale.
When the White House official insisted that the U.S. would set the rules for its own leader, her Chinese counterpart shot back in English, “This is our country! This is our airport!” the reports said.
When National Security Adviser Susan Rice and senior White House staffer Ben Rhodes tried to get closer to the president, lifting up a blue rope and walking under it, the official turned his fire on Rice in an attempt to block her progress.
As they exchanged angry words her Secret Service agent stepped in to usher her past him.
According to The Associated Press, the tense exchanges continued after Obama began his meetings in Hangzhou.
A reporter was denied entry to a climate change ceremony because a credential list used a nickname, though he was eventually allowed in after the U.S. Embassy intervened. The AP also reported that two Chinese officials — one working to assist the American delegation — had to be physically separated after trying to hit each other outside an event.
Calling his initial bilateral meeting with Xi on Saturday evening “extremely productive,” Obama downplayed the apparent snub Sunday.
“I wouldn’t overcrank the significance” of the airport tensions, he said at a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May.
“It is true that not for the first time when we come here there ends up being issues around security and press access,” Obama said. “Part of the reason is because we insist on a certain approach … that other countries may not insist on. We think its important that the press have access to the work that we’re doing, that they have the ability to answer questions.”
Obama said the U.S. doesn’t apologize for pushing press access because “we don’t leave our values and our ideals behind when we take those trips.”
While press access is generally unquestioned in the United States, the Chinese government exerts broad control over domestic media and prevents many foreign outlets from publishing in the country, including by blocking their websites.
Beijing insists that media must follow the party line and promote what it calls “positive propaganda.”
Beijing, however, appeared to deflect any blame for the incident, instead pinning it squarely on Washington.
In a report Sunday citing an anonymous Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said that the U.S. had turned down offers for the red-carpet treatment.
“China provides a rolling staircase for every arriving state leader, but the U.S. 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 U.S. side turned down the proposal and insisted that they didn’t need the staircase provided by the airport,” it quoted an anonymous Foreign Ministry official as saying.
But Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China, said he was convinced Obama’s treatment was part of a deliberate snub.
In a series of posts on Twitter, Guajardo claimed that the Chinese “are masters of protocol,” adding that they had hosted numerous events, including the Olympics and number of other summit, without such incidents.
“China knows how to coordinate multiple leader arrivals at airport(s),” Guajardo wrote. “They don’t screw it up, unless they want to, like today.”
In another tweet, Guajardo said that he didn’t think Obama’s arrival incident corresponded to any one issue in particular, calling it “more a message of Chinese govt to its people that they can snub him.”
Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in England, said in an email with The Japan Times that the South China Morning Post report had cast some uncertainty over what exactly transpired, such a move by Beijing would not be entirely unexpected.
“One thing is pretty certain, which is that it wasn’t an oversight,” Sullivan said. “China takes these details very seriously and if it was their move, it was done deliberately. If that was the case, the easy interpretation is that the (Communist) Party was sending a message to the domestic audience, to the U.S. and to other countries, that it feels confident and powerful enough to snub the U.S. President.
“I don’t think it is unfair to say that such a signal would be beneath the party,” Sullivan added.