But Sunday’s drama did not surface at some contentious, table-pounding workshop, or on a podium where frustrated trade ministers announced some hopeless impasse, but on the airport tarmac as world leaders arrived in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou to attend the summit of the world’s richest economies.
The first sign of trouble was when Barack 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 China failed to provide the United States' entourage with a rolling staircase, as is customary for visiting dignitaries.
Moments later, a Chinese official attempted to prevent the administration’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, from walking to the motorcade as she crossed a media rope line, speaking 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.
The same official who confronted Rice could earlier be heard shouting at a White House press aide who was instructing foreign reporters on where to stand as they recorded Obama disembarking from the plane.
“This is our country. This is our airport,” the official said in English, pointing demonstrably and speaking in a tone clearly tinged with anger.
The U.S. aide insisted that the journalists be allowed to stand behind a rope line, enabling reporters to record Obama’s interaction with the welcoming delegation without interruption, which is typical practice for pool reporters traveling with the president.
“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.
The United States eclipsed the United Kingdom as the world’s top economy at the turn of the last century, but a 2014 World Bank study showed that China’s economy, relative to that of the U.S., had more than doubled between 2005 and 2011, from 43 percent to 87 percent.
Tensions between the two countries have risen dramatically during Obama’s nearly eight years in office as the White House has attempted to thwart China’s seemingly inexorable rise with a wide-range of foreign, trade and military policies that includes, notably, the Trans Pacific Partnership and a July ruling by the Hague that an important trade route, the South China Sea, is the property of the Phillipines.
China denounced the ruling, and said it would ignore the decision.
Observers say that the open conflict to start this weekend’s G20 summit sends a clear signal, however. Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China, told the Guardian newspaper that 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 Jingping to 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 told the Guardian.
“This clearly plays very much into the (idea): ‘Look, we can make the American president go out of the ass of the plane.’”