Upon arrival on Saturday in China as part of his last visit to Asia as US Commander in Chief for the periodic photo-op that is the G-20 meeting, something unexpected happened: a very undiplomatic greeting when an unusual tarmac altercation involving Chinese and U.S. officials, including national security adviser Susan Rice, devolved into a shouting match by a member of the Chinese delegation.
It all started with the actual landing: as AP reports, the first sign of trouble is that there was no staircase for Obama to exit the plane and descend on the red carpet. So, as the photo below shows, Obama used an alternative exit. Needless to say, a diplomatic fuck up such as this one, was not accidental - Beijing was sending a loud and clear message.
Then, around the time Obama was exiting through the emergency staircase, a Chinese official began shouting at White House staff after the traveling American press contingent was brought onto the tarmac. The Chinese official also attempted to block Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes after they lifted a blue rope holding back press and walked to the other side of it, closer to Obama.
As Reuters adds, a Chinese official attempted to prevent 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 stepped between the two. 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 and not a reporter.
Then, according to Politico, the press pool was brought under a wing of Air Force One where the pool was supposed to stay behind a blue rope. However, a member of the Chinese delegation began shouting at White House staff, demanding the pool leave the arrival scene. A White House official said Obama was our president and Air Force One was our plane and that the press was not going to move from the designated area. The Chinese official angrily responded "This is our country. This is our airport."
A video of the incident was tweeted later by Reuters' White House reporter Roberta Rampton:
Government official was not happy that reporters were under the wing of AF1. WH press aide would not back down. pic.twitter.com/C3JRVIe37K
— Roberta Rampton (@robertarampton) September 3, 2016
"They did things that weren't anticipated," Rice told reporters afterwards.
However, the disagreements between Chinese and American officials did not just stay on the tarmac. At Westlake Statehouse, where the summit was being held, a group of White House staff arriving before Obama was stopped at a security checkpoint. A heated argument between Chinese officials and White House staff, protocol officers and Secret Service, who were trying to enter the building separately from the press, broke out at the security gate.
According to the pool report, U.S. officials could be heard arguing in Chinese with Chinese officials over how many Americans could go through security at one time, how many White House officials were allowed to be in the building before Obama's arrival, and which U.S. officials were on a security list.
"The president is arriving here in an hour," a White House staffer was overheard saying in exasperation. A Chinese official assisting the U.S. officials became angered by how the guards were treating the White House staff as the disagreement escalated.
"You don't push people. No one gave you the right to touch or push anyone around," he yelled in Chinese at one of the Chinese security officials.
Another Chinese official trying to help White House staff stepped between the two men arguing, as the security official looked like he was going to throw a punch, according to the pool report. "Calm down, please. Calm down," a White House official said.
"Stop, please," said a foreign ministry official in Chinese. "There are reporters here."
Another disagreement occurred when officials and press finally made it inside the building. Chinese officials told White House press officers that only 10 American journalists were allowed in. "That's not right," a White House press official said.
Two U.S. journalists were left outside and were not allowed to stand in the room, despite White House press officials insisting there was space. "There's space. They are print reporters. They would just be just standing," one White House press officer said. The two reporters were eventually granted access.
The unprecedented show of disrespect for a standing US president and his envoys took place after Obama once again criticized China over the ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea. As cited by Reuters Obama said that China needs to be a more responsible power as it gains global influence and avoid flexing its muscles in disputes with smaller countries over issues like the South China Sea, U.S. President Barack Obama told CNN in an interview to be aired on Sunday.
Obama, who meets with President Xi Jinping at a G20 summit next week in China, told CNN the United States supports the peaceful rise of China but that Beijing had to recognize that "with increasing power comes increasing responsibilities," a quote taken by Obama's speechwriter from the Spiderman movie.
Obama said Washington had urged Beijing to bind itself to international rules and norms to help build a strong international order. "Where we see them violating international rules and norms, as we have seen in some cases in the South China Sea or in some of their behavior when it comes to economic policy, we've been very firm," Obama told CNN. "And we've indicated to them that there will be consequences."
"If you sign a treaty that calls for international arbitration around maritime issues, the fact that you're bigger than the Philippines or Vietnam or other countries ... is not a reason for you to go around and flex your muscles," Obama said. "You've got to abide by international law."
So far China not only refuses to abide by international law, showing a clear disregard for US warnings about "consequences", but with today's latest diplomatic incident has telegraphed to the world that its respect for the US presidential institution has never been lower.