The Hangzhou Photo Op: Kerfuffle or Calculated Snub?

International summits are sometimes belittled as mere photo-ops, opportunities for photographers to snap shots of world leaders shaking hands and smiling, while the real story takes place behind closed doors, far from the prying apertures of the press.

But the photo-op of the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama and his entourage in Hangzhou, China, on Sunday vied with the global economy, Syria and climate change for center stage on the first day of the G-20 summit.

Much of the unpleasantness had to do with the American press corps, which Chinese officials, obeying some inscrutable protocol of their own, sought from the outset to keep far from the president and from the action they had been sent to cover.

When a presidential aide tried to intervene on their behalf, a Chinese official screamed at him, “This is our country! This is our airport!”

It was enough to make the White House press corps nostalgic for “ping-pong diplomacy” and the days of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Nixon’s China trip was one gigantic photo-op, and arguably the most successful one in history.

On this trip they even tried to keep national security adviser Susan Rice away from Obama. When asked about that, she replied in acid understatement: “They did things that weren’t anticipated.”

But the bizarre treatment was not limited to journalists and advisors. The de rigueur red carpet was conspicuously not there, nor were the mobile stairs for the president’s disembarkation rolled up to the plane as usual. Instead, Obama was forced to climb down from Air Force One through a little-used rear exit, depriving photographers of the photo op that it was their assignment to get.

Obama tried to downplay the matter when the leadoff questioner at a press conference asked, “What do you make of the kerfuffle at the airport?”

“I wouldn’t over-crank the significance of it, because, as I said, this is not the first time that these things happened. And it doesn’t just happen here. It happens in a lot of places…” Obama said, adding that the climate change meeting (to which the American reporters were denied entrance) with Premier Xi Jinping was “extremely productive.”

The climate change chat was expected. What happened on the tarmac wasn’t, and it was hard to accept the president’s attempt to brush it off as just one of those things that happens sometimes when you’re gadding about in Air Force One.

But media commentators from Britain’s Economist, Canada’s Globe and Mail and the Voice of America perceived the Chinese behavior as nothing less than a calculated snub of “the leader of the free world.”

They noticed that their hosts had the red carpet waiting for India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin; the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye; Brazil’s president, Michel Temer; and the British prime minister, Theresa May. Only in U.S. President Barack Obama’s case did they forget.

Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China, didn’t think they just forgot.

“These things do not happen by mistake. Not with the Chinese,” Guajardo said. “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.”

Somehow, Guajardo’s version sounds more convincing than Obama’s, though obviously the president could not say such things in public, even if he agrees.

Even if the specific greeting mode was not anticipated, the attitude it signifies comes as no surprise to anyone who has been watching the Chinese performing on the world stage in recent months.

Their blatant defiance of a decision in July at The Hague rejecting China’s claims to the territorial waters of the Philippines in the South China Sea gave some indication of what the Chinese think about the opinions of the international community and its esteemed jurists. Beijing will go on building artificial islands and military bases in the region, as befitting its imperial prerogatives.

Some commentators have pointed to the elaborate preparations the Chinese authorities have made for the G-20 as evidence that they realize this is an opportunity to demonstrate their desire and ability to take a responsible role in world governance.

No doubt the Chinese are fully aware that the world is watching the proceedings at Hangzhou and are acting accordingly. It’s just that their idea of a proper role in the international community is not quite the same as what others think it should be.

On the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in March, Obama reportedly warned China’s Premier Xi Jinping to reconsider his country’s aggressive activities in the region, lest it lead to a serious confrontation. He made the warning public on Monday, warning of “consequences” if it does not restrain itself.

There’s no need to wait for a response from the Chinese. They have already told Obama what they think of his warnings on the tarmac at Hangzhou airport.