The lows and highs of the world’s most important bilateral relationship
Updated at 8am GMT, to incorporate a new theory about the trouble with the staircase
REPORTING on big international summits is often an exercise in drudgery. Debates about the agenda take place behind closed doors, weeks in advance of the actual meetings. Final agreements are phrased in general terms, smoothed out to be acceptable to all those at the table. Journalists are herded between photo-ops; they see beaming smiles and firm handshakes rather than the disagreements that preceded them. Or, at least, that is the way things are supposed to be.
A summit of G20 leaders, which began on September 4th in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, deviated from this stereotype with an oddly tense and protocol-defying start. After participants landed at Hangzhou’s airport, red-carpeted stairways were rolled up to their aeroplanes. But when Barack Obama’s Air Force One touched down, there were no ceremonial steps for him. The American president instead disembarked on a smaller set of metal stairs via the plane’s underbelly.
At around the same time, a dispute broke out on the tarmac when a Chinese official prevented American reporters from lining up to record Mr Obama’s exit, as members of the White House press corps commonly do on such occasions. “This is our country. This is our airport,” the official hollered. He then attempted to stop Susan Rice, Mr Obama’s national security adviser, from cutting across the cordon to join the president’s motorcade. Shouting and shoving continued at the diplomatic compound where the meetings were to take place, as Chinese security officers blocked several White House staff members from entering.
Other delegations have run into umpteen problems trying to get between their hotels, the meeting venues and the media centre. But the missing staircase for Mr Obama’s arrival stood out. China had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the summit ran smoothly. Security in the city, normally known for a more relaxed atmosphere, is overwhelming. The government has shut down dirty factories hundreds of kilometres away in order to clear the air and given residents a weeklong holiday to encourage them to leave the city and leave the streets clear. How, then, could it have overlooked such a basic element of its arrangements?
The innocent explanation is that there was a diplomatic misunderstanding at the airport, albeit a rather astonishing one. The New York Times reports that the Americans had flown in with their own stairs for the occasion, only for the Chinese to block their use at the last minute. The Chinese then offered their own, which the Americans refused because the driver could not speak English. The darker interpretation is that China’s sudden rejection of the American-provided stairs was calculated to insult Mr Obama on his last trip to Asia as the American president. That would have been an odd tactic: the chaos on the arrival of Air Force One looked more embarrassing for China than America. Mr Obama, for his part, downplayed the significance. “We’ve got a lot of planes, a lot of helicopters, a lot of cars and a lot of guys,” he said. “If you are a host country, sometimes it may feel a bit much.”
But if the various hitches can be laughed off, the furore surrounding them is nonetheless revealing. It is common to hear China’s relationship with America described as the world’s most important one between two countries. In one corner stands the world’s lone superpower, in the other its foremost challenger—one that is getting stronger quickly and that is moving more aggressively to assert territorial claims in seas where America long held military sway. America has responded in part with a “pivot to Asia”, vowing to shift the focus of its foreign-policy to the region. Even if this strategy has not lived up to its billing, China has condemned it as an attempt by America to thwart its rise.
Commercial disputes have also flared up. Access to China’s market, never easy for foreign investors, has become tougher. China’s companies are turning into fearsome competitors. Take the case of Apple: it is losing customers to slick upstart Chinese smartphone-makers at the same time as regulators are limiting the services it can provide in China. America, meanwhile, has slapped tariffs on Chinese goods—ranging from solar panels to steel—to counteract the state subsidies that, in part, fuel China’s cheap exports.
There has also been a widening in recent years of the gulf between the two countries’ political values. Xi Jinping, China’s president, has been tightening controls on civil society and the media, and jailing ever more activists. The hope that greater openness might follow in the wake of China’s economic growth looks increasingly forlorn. The suffocating security in Hangzhou is a small reminder of that.
The other half of the glass In some areas, however, relations between China and America have also made commendable progress. Chinese investment in America has soared in recent years, knitting the two countries together more closely. As the Chinese economy matures, its companies and regulators have become more sensitive to the need to protect intellectual property—as Americans, like others in the West, have long been demanding they should. There are now more than 300,000 Chinese students in America. Some of them, at least, will return with fond memories of the country that hosted them.
China and America have also scored one clear diplomatic success: their joint pledge in 2014 to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions. This paved the way for a global climate-change agreement in Paris last year. Just before the start of the G20 meeting in Hangzhou, the two countries announced that they would formally ratify the Paris deal. As the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, the two countries’ tricky relationship had previously been the biggest obstacle to global climate talks. Now their co-operation is perhaps the main reason for optimism.
Even China’s hosting of the G20 is in its way an accomplishment. In 2005 Robert Zoellick, then America’s deputy secretary of state, called on China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. The eagerness with which China has taken to its G20 hosting duties is evidence that it is.
By the time Mr Obama shook hands with Mr Xi at the formal start of the G20, they were all smiles. This was not a true reflection of the state of the relationship. But the image that will surely prove more memorable—of Mr Obama walking down the metal stairway from the undercarriage of Air Force One—was not an accurate reflection of it either.