Proper Greeting on the tarmac: Premier Zhou Enlai Greets President Nixon in 1972 with a handshake that changed history.
China, the land of Confucian etiquette, is where diplomatic protocol was first invented. The sage himself famously wrote in his Analects: “You peng zi yuan fang lai, bu yi le hu!” which roughly translates as “To have friends coming in from afar, how delightful.” Yet, while other foreign leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, were extended every courtesy upon their arrival at Hangzhou airport for the G-20 summit this past weekend, there was no VIP staircase waiting for the American President to disembark. Instead President Obama had to make his way to the back of Air Force One, being treated little better than Rosa Parks in the Jim Crow era. He then descended from a little used security exit in the belly of the plane before finally making his way to a red carpet on the tarmac. Such a diplomatic snafu in a society where form usually triumphs over substance had to be calculated. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/04/barack-obama-deliberately-snubbed-by-chinese-in-chaotic-arrival-at-g20)
The diplomatic snub also sent a not very subtle message to not only the Chinese people but to Asian neighbors also steeped in the age-old traditions of Confucian hospitality. Host Xi Jinping, who has famously proclaimed “Asia for the Asians” (http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1553414/xi-jinpings-asia-asians-mantra-evokes-imperial-japan), seemed to be telling his protocol-conscious fellow Asians that Barack Obama is not only a lame duck but a paper tiger. Xi signaled that Obama’s “pivot” to Asia is of no concern, along with his likely doomed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TPP will unlikely see the light of day in a lame-duck session of the U.S. Congress with BOTH leading candidates to succeed Obama on record as opposing it. The Chinese seemed to be giving a nonverbal cue that President Obama is increasingly irrelevant.
Beijing did not dare to show diplomatic disdain for Ronald Reagan during his historic 1984 trip to China despite Reagan’s having issued a few years previously the “Six Assurances.” These had reassured Taiwan which was wary over possible American abandonment. (http://taiwandocuments.org/assurances.htm). President Bill Clinton was equally given a warm welcome in 1998 despite the occurrence of the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96 where he had ordered the greatest display of U.S. military strength in the Western Pacific since the Vietnam War. (http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/taiwan_strait.htm). Despite Clinton’s dispatch of two aircraft carrier battle groups he was well received.
Beijing, of course, added further salt to the wound during the Obama arrival when National Security Adviser Susan Rice was temporarily blocked from joining the Presidential motorcade on the tarmac by a Chinese security official shouting “This is our country. This is our airport.” (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-g20-china-hangzhou-usa-idUSKCN1190AT). It is not entirely clear if the Chinese official mistook Ms. Rice for one of the traveling press corps. Given the reported thoroughness of the Chinese security apparatus, however, the non-recognition of the American President’s National Security Adviser seems highly implausible.
The in-character “No Drama Obama” attempted to downplay the brouhaha over the airport arrival. The President reportedly said at a subsequent news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May that ““I wouldn’t overcrank the significance” of the airport tensions. (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/09/04/asia-pacific/obama-plays-significance-alleged-airport-snub-china-ahead-g-20-summit/#.V837s_WcE6s).
Others were seemingly emboldened by the snub however. The new President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, known for his anti-American leanings and under fire from Washington for an anti-drug campaign which has seen over 2400 people killed since he took office on June 30th, vowed not to be lectured by Obama on human rights during an upcoming ASEAN summit in Vientiane. Speaking of his anticipated meeting with Obama, the “acid-tongued” leader reportedly told a press conference in Manila before flying to Laos for the summit: “You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum.” Obama, upon being informed of Duterte’s statement, referred to him as “a colorful guy” but cast doubts on the expected bilateral meeting by stating that he had asked his staff to determine whether a meeting with Duterte would be useful. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-3774386/Philippines-Duterte-calls-Barack-Obama-son-whore.html).
The estrangement with the new Philippines president casts further doubt on the military component of Obama’s Asian “pivot.” Assisting treaty ally the Philippines in its South China Sea disputes with China, including the conducting of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), has been a key component of the “pivot.” While Duterte’s predecessor Aquino welcomed U.S. assistance and enhanced military ties, the volatile Duterte is considered a far less reliable ally and one even capable of cutting a side deal with Beijing.
Any doubts over the Chinese obsession with protocol can be laid to rest with a historic example of an airport handshake. Cold Warrior and American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles famously refused to shake Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s hand at the Indochina conference held in Geneva in 1954. For almost two decades the leadership in Beijing reportedly smoldered with resentment over the diplomatic slight. President Richard Nixon, well aware of this long-ago protocol imbroglio, made a point of making a handshake with Zhou Enlai on the airport tarmac his first order of business upon touching down on Chinese soil on his historic 1972 trip. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nixon_shakes_hands_with_Chou_En-lai.jpg). So if you think the diplomatic snub of President Obama at Hangzhou airport is no big deal, think again.