As the leader of one of the biggest superpowers on the planet, it’s safe to say Barack Obama is used to receiving an almost royal welcome. However, that was far from the situation when he touched down in China on Saturday in preparation for the G20 summit.
Things took a somewhat strange turn when the US president was ready to disembark the plane at Hangzhou airport. Chinese authorities had seemingly forgotten to provide a staircase for his arrival; something that many experts believe was a calculated snub rather than an innocent oversight. He was forced instead to leave through a much less impressive exit in the belly of the plane.
As the New York Times put it: “The reception that President Obama and his staff got when they arrived here Saturday afternoon was bruising, even by Chinese standards.”
The Chinese leaders have previously given a red carpet welcome for other leaders including India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, British prime minister Theresa May and Russian president Vladmir Putin; something that is sure to have gone unnoticed to the US leader. Also adding insult to injury is the fact that upon his arrival one Chinese official was reportedly caught on camera shouting “This is our country! This is our airport!”.
Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China, told the Guardian: “These things do not happen by mistake. Not with the Chinese. I’ve dealt with the Chinese for six years. I’ve done these visits. I took Xi Jinpingto 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.”
He 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.”
Expert on China Bill Bishop agrees with this assessment. He said he believes the act was probably deliberate in order “to make the Americans look diminished and weak”.
“It sure looks like a straight-up snub,” he added. “This clearly plays very much into the [idea]: ‘Look, we can make the American president go out of the ass of the plane. We’ve no proof. It could clearly just be a cock-up but it would be a stunningly large cock-up given how well these people plan for all these events and especially for something like the G20”.