Whether the US president got a red carpet welcome might seem irrelevant – but the furore says much about China’s growing power
Little things can mean a lot. The minutiae of diplomatic protocol seem trivial when the subjects on the G20’s table are so huge, including climate change, global economic growth, tensions in the South China Sea and – for the UK – the fall-out from the vote for Brexit. Yet the red carpet-less greeting for Barack Obama in China matters more than one might think. Even the British and Japanese prime ministers got the VIP reception, despite Theresa May’s Hinkley Point hesitations and Tokyo’s fraught relationship with Beijing. Only the US president had to use what one might call the Naughty Steps, an uncarpeted flight descending from the bowels of the plane.
Cock-up or conspiracy? Chinese arrangements can be surprisingly last minute, and official visits are frequently tense. But at the very minimum, it shows a telling carelessness from a nation so consumed by presentational issues that rooftops in the host city of Hangzhou were reportedly repainted to improve aerial views. The G20 is supposed to reinforce the country’s standing as a major power; the row has made China look petty, bolshy and graceless, rather than confident and magnanimous. Had the Chinese president received this welcome at a US-hosted summit, the cries that the US had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people would have been deafening.