The airplane stairway flap at G-20 meeting in Hangzhou, China: Did Obama lose face because of Chinese insults, or did Xi Jingping humiliate himself?

When he arrived in Hangzhou, China for the G-20 summit, the Chinese authorities did not roll out the usual stairway for arriving dignitaries, as they did for other G-20 heads of state.  Barack Obama took a stairway lowered from the bottom of the plane instead.


Tom Phillips (Beijing), “Barack Obama ‘deliberately snubbed’ by Chinese in chaotic arrival at G20; The US president was denied the usual red carpet welcome and forced to ‘go out of the ass’ of Air Force One, observers say,” The Guardian, September 4, 2016 (3:27 p.m.).

Donald Trump quickly seized on this apparent insult and said he would have turned around and left.  He has a point, but the wiser course might have been to go to a neighboring country and wait for the Chinese to roll out the stairway.  This would have exposed Xi Jingping to great embarrassment among the other invited heads of state, richly deserved. Returning home would not have made sense because Obama has a number of meetings on the sidelines scheduled, and is also an important participant in the G-20 talks.

Had it been a bilateral summit, returning home might have been an option, as would have simply staying on the plane until they got the right stairway set up.

There is another angle to be considered, moreover.  It is the job of the White House staff to prepare a summit meeting, including the fine choreography of what happens when the president arrives and when he leaves.  Did the White House staff responsible for these details fail to work them out in advance, or did the Chinese break their agreement on the protocol to be followed?  Or did no one at the White House think about it?

On balance, it looks like a deliberate Chinese snub, though it is unclear at what level decisions were made.

The Trenchant Observer

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James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.