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Obama Had The Best Response After His Unexpectedly Awkward Arrival In China

Obama said his team can be "a little overwhelming" after arriving in Hangzhou for the G20 summit via "the ass" of Air Force One.

Last updated on September 4, 2016, at 9:36 a.m. ET

Posted on September 4, 2016, at 6:12 a.m. ET

Etienne Oliveau / Getty Images

Barack Obama arrived in Hangzhou, China, for the start of the G20 Summit Saturday, but the visit did not get off to the best start.

To begin with, the US president was forced to leave Air Force One through a little-used smaller exit, usually reserved for landings in dangerous territories — such as Afghanistan.

In what has been described by one China expert as a "deliberate" snub, Chinese officials quite literally forgot to roll out the red carpet, leaving the US team to improvise.

British PM Theresa May arrives, as does Obama
China Stringer Network / Reuters

British PM Theresa May arrives, as does Obama

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

That wasn't all. Once Obama disembarked, the White House press corps, who travel with the president and attend almost all of his events, were barred by a Chinese official from standing under the wings of Air Force One waiting for Obama's arrival.

It is usual practice for the traveling press to record the president as he disembarks.

"A member of the Chinese delegation was screaming at White House staff from the moment pool got onto the tarmac," according to a pool report. "He wanted he US press to leave. The Chinese had put up a blue rope under the wing so pool had to stand behind it. This man was demanding the pool, which was behind the blue rope, get away from the arrival scene altogether."

"This is our country, this is our airport," an unidentified Chinese airport official told a White House press aide, who was attempting to move reporters under the wings and into a roped-off pool.

Government official was not happy that reporters were under the wing of AF1. WH press aide would not back down.

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice intervened with the official in an attempt to help the reporters. Although her remarks were not caught on camera, a Reuters reporter said her Secret Service detail had to intervene after Rice was barred.

The same Chinese airport official was said to "get testy" with Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes.

Speaking after the incident, Obama said the size of the US delegation could be “a little overwhelming.”

“We’ve got a lot of planes, a lot of helicopters, a lot of cars and a lot of guys. If you are a host country, sometimes it may feel a little bit much,” he told AFP during a joint press conference with British prime minister Theresa May on Sunday.

But the president warned against making too much of the incident. “I wouldn’t over-crank the significance of it because, as I said, this is not the first time that these things happen and it doesn’t just happen here," he told reporters.

Obama also said the "kerfuffle" at the airport did not detract from the importance of US–China relations, especially coming just a few hours after both nations agreed to a historic climate change initiative.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Rice, pictured above with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Hangzhou, later explained the incident to reporters: "They [Chinese officials] did things that weren’t anticipated."

On Sunday an anonymous Chinese official said it was the US delegation's decision not to have the red carpet.

In remarks to the South China Morning Post, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was the US who had "turned down" the proposal of a rolling staircase.

The official told the newspaper: “China provides a rolling staircase for every arriving state leader, but the US side complained that the driver doesn’t speak English and can’t understand security instructions from the United States; so China proposed that we could assign a translator to sit beside the driver, but the US side turned down the proposal and insisted that they didn’t need the staircase provided by the airport."

Bill Bishop, a China expert who monitors the political scene in the country, said the scene looked "like a straight-up snub" intended “to make the Americans look diminished and weak."

Bishop, speaking to the Guardian, said: "This clearly plays very much into the [idea]: 'Look, we can make the American president go out of the ass of the plane.'"

Many journalists, some who were in Hangzhou for the summit, expressed bemusement at events.

Laura Kuenssberg / Via Twitter: @bbclaurak
Tom Phillips / Via Twitter: @tomphillipsin
James Fallows / Via Twitter: @JamesFallows
Erik Crouch / Via Twitter: @erikcrouch

The "difficulties and disagreements" continued later at the Westlake State House in Hangzhou, according to a pool reporter, with staffers and press stopped by security.

"White House staff, protocol officers, and Secret Service, trying to enter separately from press, spent 15 mins in heated arguments with Chinese officials," the pool reporter wrote.

"US officials could be heard arguing in Chinese with Chinese security officials over how many Americans could be allowed to go through security at a time," the reporter wrote.

"The president is arriving here in an hour," one White House staffer was overheard saying in exasperation, according to the pool report.

The spectacle was too much for even one Chinese official who was assisting the US delegation and "nearly came to blows" with security over their treatment of the Americans.

"You don't push people. No one gave you the right to touch or push anyone around," he told security workers.

"Stop, please," said another Foreign Ministry official in Chinese. "There are reporters here."

This is the first time China is hosting the global economic summit. Opening the event on Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged leaders to avoid "empty talk" as they examined ways to boost economic revival around the globe.

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