Western officials say that negotiations and joint events often feel like exercises in humiliation
The image of President Barack Obama walking, as one commentator put it, “out of the ass of Air Force One”, instead of down a red-carpeted staircase will definitely be what many people remember about this year’s G20 meeting in China.
The details of why the staircase was withheld are beside the point. The symbolism of the US president stepping down the short metal stairs while every other visiting state leader descended a tall carpeted walkway was undeniable.
The contrast was further highlighted when a Chinese official was caught on film yelling at White House staff: “This is our country, this is our airport,” as he tried to stop US journalists from covering the arrival of their president.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the incident was concocted by “arrogant and conceited western media”. But that was undermined when China’s Public Security Bureau declared: “This is our country” and “yep, this is very China” on its main social media account, where it also posted a clip of Mr Obama walking down the metal staircase. The video was later deleted but the approving comment was not.
The travelling US press pack documented more insults as Susan Rice, the national security adviser, was accosted while trying to join the president and Chinese security officials repeatedly obstructed White House and Secret Service staff, at one point nearly provoking a fight in front of reporters.
China has been preparing for the G20 for more than two years and event planning is a forte of the Communist party; so why, as US officials claim, did the Chinese side change the arrangements for Mr Obama just before he arrived?
The domestic propaganda benefits that accrue from putting the arrogant superpower in its place are impossible to ignore. As the 18th-century Chinese emperor Qianlong once said of the pesky British: “A barbarian becomes arrogant when treated too favourably.”
Any western diplomat with recent dealings with China will tell you that negotiations and joint events often feel like exercises in ritual humiliation. Even the Queen expressed frustration at how “very rude” Chinese officials were during President Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK in October.
The tough negotiating style and diplomatic incidents also reflect some unique characteristics of the Chinese political system. For one thing, the training and career trajectory of diplomats in China mean they often work on a single country or region for their entire careers and this allows for the accumulation of great institutional knowledge, especially at the top of the hierarchy. In contrast, western democratic systems discard senior appointed diplomats or their ministers every few years.
Leaders urged to ‘civilise capitalism’ U.S. President Barack Obama, front row left, and China’s President Xi Jinping, third from left, gesture as other leaders look on after a group photo session for the G-20 Summit held at the Hangzhou International Expo Center in Hangzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. Also pictured are German Chancellor Angela Merkel, second left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, third right, and French President Francois Hollande, second right. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
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This can put them at a disadvantage when dealing with Chinese experts who often know other countries’ pain points better than they do.
Another feature of China’s system is its ability to pursue policy objectives using multiple agencies. In contrast, western political systems are internally adversarial by nature, making it difficult to have a broad range of agencies acting in concert, especially since they are often established with the explicit purpose of checking each other’s power.
The treatment of Norway after imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 is a good example of Beijing’s advantage in this area. Since the prize was awarded, China has blocked imports from Norway and restricted scientific and artistic exchanges. The former Norwegian ambassador to Beijing, in his words, “became very good at tennis” because no Chinese officials would meet him. As one retired western ambassador points out, such undeclared sanctions, co-ordinated among numerous bureaucracies, would be virtually impossible to implement in a western liberal democracy.
“If we were able to operate in the same way we would have many more ways to apply pressure to China,” this person told the Financial Times. “For one thing we could restrict or review student visas for all of the children of top Chinese officials who are studying in our countries but that is not something we are able to do in our systems.”
Given China’s co-ordination ability and the importance to it of the G20 meeting, it is unlikely that the last-minute changes to Mr Obama’s schedule and the friction felt on the trip were purely accidental. The only unusual thing was how public it was.
As Mr Obama said when asked about the episode: “The seams are showing a little more than usual in terms of some of the negotiations and jostling that takes place behind the scenes.”