Obama staircase row is a non-event in the bigger scheme of Sino-US relations
Zhou Xin says airport glitches must not overshadow the notable gains made at the G20 summit, as goodwill is key when neither China nor the US can go it alone on pressing global issues
It’s rather surprising that the biggest talking point to come out of the G20 summit in Hangzhou (杭州) has not been how world leaders need to sit down together to fix the weak global economy, but the exchange of words between Chinese and US bureaucrats over airport security and media access.
According to reports from US journalists travelling with President Barack Obama, it could easily be read as a deliberate “snub” by China that Obama was deprived of the red carpet treatment as he descended from Air Force One. A Chinese official shouting at a US official that “this is our country, this is our airport”, captured on camera, and a security guard’s attempt to stop US National Security Adviser Susan Rice are additional signs of an increasingly assertive China that is set to clash with the US.
For many Chinese security and diplomatic officials, who had been working for months towards a flawless G20 summit, the big fuss about the glitches, however, is another sign of American arrogance and, to some conspiracy theorists, Washington’s inherent hostility towards Beijing. They claim the US was not willing to see a successful summit in China – an event President Xi Jinping (習近平) attached great political importance to, in order to display a rising power’s leadership over the global economy.
Multimedia interactive special: historic G20 meeting in Hangzhou - the leaders, their agenda and the redrawing of the world’s economic order
The facts have gradually emerged. China did, it seems, prepare a proper staircase for Obama at the airport, as it did for every arriving state leader. That included Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is more unpopular in Beijing than Obama, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, with whom China is still very angry over her decision to deploy a US anti-missile system. Even the incident where Rice was stopped by a Chinese guard seemed reasonable from China’s point of view.
“When Susan Rice crossed a line, with no identification badge on her, should she be stopped?” a Chinese official asked rhetorically when asked to comment on the incident. “Would it be reasonable to ask every Chinese security personnel on the ground to recognise [her] face?”
Common sense indicates that it would have been unreasonable and even childish for Beijing to single out Obama in such a way so that he did not receive the treatment every state guest deserves.
In fact, Xi spent more time with Obama than any other dignitary at the G20. On top of routine bilateral talks, Xi and Obama attended a ceremony announcing the two countries’ joint ratification of the landmark climate change deal reached in Paris last year and the two even had a moonlit stroll by the West Lake, sipping tea together in a beautiful pavilion. All this shows China’s efforts to build greater rapport with the US, despite the differences between the two countries over the South China Sea, cybersecurity and human rights.
In a broad historical context, China is trying to avoid the so-called Thucydides Trap, a theory attributed to the eponymous ancient Greek philosopher that a rising power will clash with a currently dominant one. On the other hand, it is inevitable that China, an authoritarian system ruled by a communist party, will face suspicion and hostility when it tries to extend its economic and even political influence beyond its borders.
At the same time, anti-globalisation sentiment is on the rise in the traditional advanced economies, and the world is certainly better off when China, the world’s second-largest economy and largest merchandise trader, sticks to the ideas of free trade and common prosperity. It’s true that China may be just paying lip service to such ideas but, even taken at face value, it’s a good thing.
When Obama’s convoy swirled through the streets of Hangzhou, it must have been much better for the entourage to see that lining the route were slogans calling for sustainable and inclusive growth, instead of ones condemning “American imperialism and all its running dogs”, as Richard Nixon’s delegation probably witnessed when the then US president visited the same city in 1972.
Goodwill between the world’s two largest economies is needed with so many problems that can’t be solved by Beijing or Washington alone, and it is a pity that attention was diverted to things that could be avoided.
The G20 summit produced a long list of agreements calling for stronger growth, closer policy coordination and more inclusive development. It’s a massive document of promises that will require strong political willingness to act together so that at least some results can be delivered.
It would be too bad if the document was easily forgotten and the airport glitch remembered.
Zhou Xin is a Post editorial staffer in Beijing who writes about the Chinese economy