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G20 airport skirmish exposes tensions in US-China values

Saul Loeb / AFP | US President Barack Obama disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport in Hangzhou on September 3, 2016.

Skirmishes between US and Chinese officials and a heated row over allowing media access marked a bumpy start to China’s G20 summit.


As US President Barack Obama's Air Force One jet touched down in the eastern city of Hangzhou on Saturday for what will be the president’s last scheduled trip to China, there was no red carpet in sight. Also notably absent were the usual mobile stairs made available to dignitaries disembarking from their official flights.

After Obama was finally forced to exit from a lower doorway, a tarmac spat erupted when a Chinese government official blocked National Security Adviser Susan Rice from accessing the president and then yelled at another US official trying to assist journalists

The dispute concluded with a heated exchange as one official shouted, "This is our country! This is our airport!" at White House staffers as they tried to help American reporters position themselves to film Obama's arrival.

The outburst was caught on camera in an awkward prelude to face-to-face talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his American counterpart.

Rice seemed less than amused by the incident when asked about it by a reporter.

"They did things that weren't anticipated," she said.

A Chinese official told The South China Morning Post on Sunday that while China provides red carpets for every arriving state leader, the US “turned down the proposal and insisted that they didn't need the staircase provided by the airport".

Later, clashes turned aggressive when two Chinese officials – one working to assist the American delegation – had to be physically separated after trying to hit each other outside an event.

'I wouldn’t overcrank the significance'

The New York Times reported that the reception received by Obama and his entourage “was bruising, even by Chinese standards”.

Obama, however, shrugged off the incident with good humour, saying, “I wouldn’t overcrank the significance” of the tensions at the airport, adding that it was not a first for China.

"We think it's important that the press have access to the work that we're doing,” he said during a press conference with UK Prime Minister Theresa May. “That they have the ability to answer questions," he said, adding that: "We don't leave our values and ideals behind when we take these trips."

But he conceded that there are differences in values apparent during discussions with his Chinese counterparts.

"When I bring up issues like human rights, there are some tensions there that perhaps don't take place when President Xi meets with other leaders."

Both countries, however, are eager to smooth over differences and find areas of common cause. A successful summit will boost Xi's international and domestic billing as he heads into a series of key Communist Party meetings. Obama hopes a positive G20 outcome will cement his legacy as he approaches the end of his last term in office.

Keeping the media in check

Kerfuffles over press access are common in China, where the ruling Communist Party sees the media more as a tool for forwarding its political agenda than an independent check on governance.

The country tightly controls its journalism, regularly censoring reporting on issues it deems sensitive or unflattering. Its approach is particularly apparent in Hangzhou, where a suffocating security presence is designed to avoid any disruption and protect China's large political and financial investment in the summit.

Referring to the earlier fracas, Obama said the travelling White House juggernaut could be intimidating.

"I think this time... the seams are showing a little more than usual in terms of some of the negotiations and jostling that takes place behind the scenes," he told a press conference.


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