The diplomatic world is one of rigid protocol and convention, and when both are breached, you know something serious is going on.
Dignitaries arriving in Hangzhou, China for the G20 summit this weekend have been accorded all the expected honors. Well, most of them have been. But U.S. President Barack Obama was not.
You might have seen something already about a Chinese official mixing it up with National Security Adviser Susan Rice. Another Chinese official reportedly yelled at a White House aide when the two got into a confrontation over the placement of media waiting for Obama’s arrival.
But those encounters have overshadowed what is so far the most marked sign of disfavor from China: not providing the ceremonial jet stairway for Obama to descend to a red carpet for his arrival.
That literally happened. Obama ended up having to come down a utility stairway from the back of Air Force One.
The AP story contains that nugget, and it’s confirmed by video of Obama’s arrival.
A confrontation between a White House aide and a Chinese official, and other diplomatic dust-ups were out in the open from the moment Air Force One landed in Hangzhou, site of an economic summit.
The first sign of trouble: There was no staircase for Obama to exit the plane and descend on the red carpet. Obama used an alternative exit.
Here’s the video:
Here’s a sampling of the other G20 leaders arriving.
The ones who are in international jumbo jets get the biggest, flashiest stairway. You can see that it’s the same one for all of the dignitaries who have the requisite type of jet. Those arriving in smaller jets, like President Zuma of South Africa and Prime Minister Lee of Singapore, come down smaller stairways, but still come out the front of the plane (the dignitary’s exit), and are still escorted across the red carpet.
Obama is not. He departs the plane from the service end, and doesn’t get the red carpet. If you think this doesn’t matter, you don’t know what you’re talking about. The Chinese government clearly arranged this as a diplomatic slap in the face.
And being subject to such a slap is a very bad sign for American interests and the American people. The point is that China doesn’t feel obliged to treat the president of the United States any better.
Only a foolish child would think this is about whether or how America should retaliate in kind. Of course it’s not. It’s about how this lack of basic respect will affect our real, material interests and security.
The heated exchanges reported at the airport between Chinese and U.S. officials are reminiscent of Soviet comportment during the Cold War – especially the pre-Nixon days.
The AP report describes one:
On the tarmac, a quarrel broke out between a presidential aide and a Chinese official who demanded the journalists traveling with Obama be prohibited from getting anywhere near him. It was a breach of the tradition observed whenever the American president arrives in a foreign place.
When the White House official insisted the U.S. would set the rules for its own leader, her Chinese counterpart shot back.
“This is our country! This is our airport!” the Chinese official yelled.
Fox outlines additional encounters:
U.S. officials also apparently got into a heated exchange with Chinese security official before Obama arrived at China’s West Lake State Guest House, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to formally enter their respective countries — the world’s two biggest carbon emitters — into last year’s Paris climate change agreement. …
White House staffers and Secret Service officers trying to enter the state guest house separately from reporters were stopped at a security gate and purportedly argued about how many members of the U.S. delegation would be allowed to enter.
“The president is arriving here in an hour,” one White House staffer was overheard saying in exasperation.
However, the most heated exchange purportedly occurred between a Chinese security official and a Chinese official helping Americans who got angry about how the guards were treating the White House staff. …
Another Chinese official stepped between the two when the security official purportedly looked ready to throw a punch. …
Another heated exchange between White House press officers and Chinese officials purportedly occurred minutes later — over how many American print reporters would be allowed inside the building.
The disagreement continued until about 20 minutes before Obama arrived and purportedly ended with 10 of the reporters being allowed inside, despite White House officials arguing there was plenty of empty space for them to stand at the back of the room.
The highest-profile event was the altercation involving Susan Rice:
The exchange with Rice reportedly happened when the Chinese official attempted to prevent her from walking to the U.S. motorcade, as she crossed a media rope line. The official purportedly spoke angrily to her before a Secret Service agent intervened.
Rice responded, but her comments were inaudible to reporters standing underneath the wing of Air Force One. It was unclear if the official, whose name was not immediately clear, knew that Rice was a senior official, not a reporter.
When asked about the incident later by a reported, Rice seemed less than amused by the incident.
“They did things that weren’t anticipated,” she said, the AP reported.
There’s no talking this away. The treatment of Obama and the U.S. delegation at the G20 summit indicates dramatic deterioration in our relations with China.
It doesn’t matter nearly as much whether China likes us as it does whether China respects us. Obama has made that hard for any nation to do, and it is clear that China no longer does.