BEIJING — President Obama tried to downplay talk of an orchestrated diplomatic snub by China on Sunday as leaders from the G-20 major world economies began a summit in the east Chinese city of Hangzhou.
Speaking ahead of the opening ceremony on Sunday afternoon, Obama said people should not “over-crank” a series of heated altercations between U.S. and Chinese officials in the 24 hours since he arrived in the communist country.
"I think this time maybe ... the seams are showing a little more than usual in terms of some of the negotiations and jostling that takes place behind the scenes," he said. "And, in fairness, when delegations travel to the United States, sometimes there are issues about our security procedures and protocols that they're aggravated with but don't always get reported on."
Tensions over protocol began almost as soon as Air Force One touched down in Hangzhou on Saturday. No mobile staircase was prepared for the U.S. president to exit the front door of the plane, forcing him to leave via the lower back door, which has its own stairs.
He also was the only national leader not to be provided with red carpet on arrival.
Obama said it was not the first time “things like this had happened,” saying they have also occurred whilst visiting close allies.
"Part of it is we also have a much bigger footprint than a lot of other countries," he said. "And we've got a lot of planes and a lot of helicopters and a lot of cars and a lot of guys, and if you're a host country, sometimes it may feel a little bit much."
Obama insisted that the tensions did not detract "from the broader scope of the relationship. As we saw yesterday, President Xi and I continued what has been a historic joint project to elevate climate change issues. The bilateral discussions that we had yesterday were extremely productive and continue to point to big areas of cooperation. When I bring up issues like human rights, there are some tensions there that perhaps don't take place when President Xi meets with other leaders, but that's part of our job, that's part of what we do."
The comments came after Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping spent several hours on Saturday in wide-ranging bilateral talks, touching on the environment, the South China Sea, protectionism, and human rights.
The two parties, the world’s biggest carbon emitters, announced they would formally join the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
“Where countries like China and the United States are prepared to show leadership and to lead by example, it is possible for us to create a world that is more secure, more prosperous, and more free than the one that was left for us,” Obama said in announcing America's adoption of the agreement.
Yet despite this and other points of agreement, there was plenty of evidence of tension.
Chinese officials blocked U.S. travelling media from watching the president disembark, shouting “this is our country” at a U.S. diplomat when she tried to argue this was not the norm for presidential arrivals.
National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice and her deputy, Benjamin J. Rhode, were also blocked from approaching President Obama on the tarmac. Later she said the Chinese had done things that “weren’t anticipated.”
The tussles continued as the Chinese reportedly cut American press access to the bilateral events. When Obama and Xi went for a walk along Hangzhou's famous West Lake in the evening, the press pack was reduced from six to one, the Washington Post reported.
At the same time as playing down the tensions, the president also defended media norms in the U.S. and other Western nations.
"We think it's important that the press have access to the work that we're doing, that they have the ability to answer questions," Obama told members of the media on Saturday. " And we don't leave our values and ideals behind when we take these trips."