HANGZHOU, CHINA —
As China’s Group of 20 Nations Leaders Summit kicked off Sunday, a commotion on the tarmac during President Barack Obama’s arrival and a series of other disputes continue to provide distractions.
When President Obama arrived in Hangzhou Saturday, the airport did not have airplane stairs ready for him to disembark Air Force One, and when he did step off the aircraft, the red carpet provided for other arriving leaders was missing.
Tensions were also high on the tarmac where a Chinese official screamed at White House press photographers as they tried to get into position to take pictures of the president. A White House official tried to intervene stating that the U.S. would set the rules for where the photographers positioned themselves. But the Chinese official yelled back: “This is our country! This is our airport!”
And that was just the beginning.
The same official tried to keep National Security Adviser Susan Rice from walking to the president’s motorcade, at which point the U.S. Secret Service intervened.
Later in the evening, after holding a ceremony to announce China and the United States joining the Paris Agreement on climate change, and holding wide-ranging bilateral talks for more than three-and-a-half hours, tensions rose again.
This time, disputes arose over how many journalists could witness a late night stroll Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping took. Chinese officials suddenly cut the number of journalists from six to three, and then to one.
“That is our arrangement,” a Chinese official told a White House press official.
“But your arrangement keeps changing,” the White House press official responded.
In the end, the two settled on two journalists from the White House press corps.
Obama on incidents
When asked about the string of apparent snubs at a press conference Sunday with British Prime Minister Theresa May, President Obama said he would not “over-crank the significance” of the incidents, noting that it was not the first time issues around security and press access have become an issue during a visit to China or other countries.
And part of that is a difference in values, he said.
“We think it's important that the press have access to the work that we're doing. That they have the ability to answer questions. And we don't leave our values and ideals behind when we take these trips. It can cause some friction,” Obama said.
High level diplomatic visits almost always involve weeks or months of negotiations to set the terms for issues such as arrival ceremonies, press access, seating arrangements and more.
But President Obama said, “Maybe as [Press Secretary] Josh [Earnest] put it, the seams are showing a little more than usual in terms of some of the negotiations and jostling that takes place behind the scenes.”
A Chinese Foreign Ministry official, however, told the South China Morning Post that it was the U.S. decision to have President Obama disembark his plane using a small bare metal stairway.
“China provides a rolling staircase for every arriving state leader, but the U.S. side complained that the driver doesn’t speak English and can’t understand security instructions from the United States,” the official told the Post. “China proposed that we could assign a translator to sit beside the driver, but the U.S. side turned down the proposal and insisted that they don’t need the staircase provided by the airport.”
WATCH: World leaders arrive for G-20 summit
Incidents have not been limited to President Obama and his traveling press entourage. Last week, when reporters traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry tried to apply for visas to come to China and attend the G-20, their applications were denied.
This reporter and a VOA Mandarin service reporter were also denied credentials for the G-20 Leaders Summit. Several other reporters have also had their applications rejected. Chinese officials have not said why the applications were rejected.