China’s leaders have been accused of delivering a calculated diplomatic snub to Barack Obama after the US President was not provided with a staircase to leave his plane on his arrival in Hangzhou city before the start of the Group of 20 (G20) summit meeting.
Chinese authorities have rolled out the red carpet for world leaders, including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Brazil’s President Michel Temer, and British Prime Minister Theresa May, who arrived here on Sunday, The Guardian reported.
But Obama, 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 Hangzhou on Saturday.
When Obama did find his way on to a red carpet on the tarmac below, there were heated altercations between the 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.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry official involved in the visit denied it had been a snub, telling the South China Morning Post that 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 said.
“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 US; 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.
Obama offered a diplomatic reply when asked to comment on the airport “kerfuffle” on Sunday during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister 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 that his Chinese hosts might have found the size of the US delegation “a little overwhelming”.
“We have 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,” Obama added.
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice admitted that she was surprised by the handling of the President’s arrival. “They did things that weren’t anticipated,” she told media.
According to the New York Times, 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 Chinese President Xi Jinping, experts had predicted that 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.
“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 President 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 news agency.
In an interview with CNN, Obama warned Beijing against muscle-flexing in the South China Sea. Xi told Obama his country would “unswervingly safeguard” its claims in the region.