On Saturday afternoon, President Obama landed in China for what is likely to be the last time during his presidency. He was en route to the Group of 20 (G20) summit meeting in Hangzhou, but so far an alleged “mix-up” has stolen the headlines.
The New York Times reported that it all started with a rolling staircase – the kind designed to line up with the door of an aircraft, allowing the president to exit Air Force One in full view of the public. U.S. military personnel delivered just such a staircase to be used on Saturday.
But then the following events unfolded:
- White House received approval from China to use the American stairs.
- According to a senior White House official, the Chinese suddenly reversed their policy.
- The Americans explained that they were willing to use a Chinese stairway.
- The Chinese insisted that the stairs be delivered to the plane on the tarmac by a local driver.
- Americans complained that the driver provided by the Chinese was unable to communicate with the White House team.
- The White House asked for an English-speaking driver.
- The Chinese refused to provide an English-speaking driver.
- The Chinese changed their minds – saying the Americans could use their own stairs – just as Air Force One landed in Hangzhou.
- By that time, however, neither the Chinese nor the Americans could get either staircase to the plane on time.
Stripped of his ability to make a red-carpet exit from the plane, President Obama exited instead from the rear doors on a staircase that simply lowers from the plane.
Normally that door is only used in nations where there are increased security concerns.
Can you believe that the Chinese would not give Obama the proper stairway to get off his plane – fight on tarmac! https://t.co/FAldS5zZi5
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2016
A number of outlets speculated that the “mix-up” was in fact an intentional snub on the part of the Chinese. Jorge Guajardo, former Mexican Ambassador to China, agreed. He 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 Jinping 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.
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.”
The fact that Chinese officials were able to get the stairs to the plane in time for the Brazilian president’s visit last year also suggests that there might have been something more involved:
But the Chinese said it was just a mistake. One official – who declined to give his name – claimed that “it would do China no good in treating Obama rudely.” Local papers ran headlines stating that US arrogance caused the problem, and their response had been “mischaracterized.”
President Obama downplayed the incident, saying that it could have been the fact that the U.S. delegation was very large, which could be “overwhelming to a host country.”
But the Associated Press reported that National Security Adviser Susan Rice – who was also confronted by officials on the tarmac in China – noted that the whole thing was mishandled: “They did things that weren’t anticipated.”