The U.S. president did not get the red carpet upon exiting his plane. A diplomatic hiccup that gave rise to tensions.
This weekend tension was at its highest in Hangzhou in eastern China. The country was hosting the G20, the most important and prestigious international summit ever organized by Beijing. But diplomatic stress turned into a protocol incident between the U.S. and China. Especially since this was Obama’s last visit as U.S. president.
’Red Carpet Gate’
Before the summit began, the presidential plane Air Force One landed in Hangzhou on Saturday, September 3, at 2:18 p.m. Barack Obama was welcomed by the Chinese honor guard. Except that no red carpet was rolled out for the U.S. president upon his descent from his plane – something the other heads of state enjoyed.
Worse yet, Barack Obama had to disembark from the plane using the lower door and the plane’s short staircase, usually only seen for trips to high-risk countries. A protocol error, dubbed “the red carpet gate” by the press, revealed the tensions between the U.S. and China.
However, according to the daily Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post, this is because the Americans demanded the presence of an English speaking rolling staircase driver who would have been able to understand U.S. agents’ instructions. However, no such bilingual driver could be found in time. Consequently, the U.S. personnel in charge of security opted to do without the Chinese services’ help. This remains to be shown.
‘You Are in China; This Is Our Airport’
This isn’t all. When off the plane, the U.S. delegation was treated in a “rude” fashion, according to journalist Mark Landler, who was a member of the delegation for The New York Times.
A Chinese official remonstrated with Susan Rice, the President's national security advisor, who wanted to join the president by ducking under the security perimeter’s rope to access the passage reserved for Barack Obama. Just before, the same Chinese official had stopped the U.S. press corps from waiting for the president’s exit from his flight under one of the Boeing 747’s wings. Then a White House press official intervened stating that the plane was a U.S. plane that carried the U.S. president. Her corresponding official replied immediately by yelling in English: “This place is ours! This is our airport!”
After this exchange of unpleasantness, the Pentagon’s intelligence agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, posted on Twitter: “China, such class, as ever.”
The message was quickly deleted, and the DIA “apologized.”
According to Mark Landler, who was part of the U.S. delegation for The New York Times, “surprises” continued after the airport episode:
“White House advisors, protocol officials and Secret Service agents started a series of skirmishes on the way in which U.S. agents should enter the building [at West Lake State House] before the arrival of Obama [and his meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping]. We even feared a physical confrontation.”
During his press conference, Barack Obama remained firm with Chinese authorities, reminding them, “It's important that the press have access to the work that we're doing. That they have the ability to answer questions.”*
The U.S. president did, however, try to calm things down, acknowledging that the security footprint of his travels can sometimes be overwhelming. "We've got a lot of planes and helicopters and a lot of cars and a lot of guys …” he said, before trying to reassure his audience about the healthy relationship between China and the U.S.
“I wouldn’t over-crank the significance of this,” he stated. Nonetheless, the former Mexican ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, expressed the view in The Guardian that the poor welcome of the U.S. delegation did not happen by chance. “These things do not happen by mistake, not with the Chinese,” he stated.
In The Wall Street Journal, China expert Bill Bishop confirmed that Barack Obama’s welcome was on the light side and that it was surely deliberate, “so that the U.S. would look diminished and weak.” It [the red carpet] looks like a snub to give force to the idea in China, “Look, we can get the U.S. president to disembark through the little door,” he added.
*Editor’s note: President Obama’s remarks were made in a subsequent press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May.