Obama talks down Hangzhou airport tiff


Hangzhou (China) (AFP)

The US and China have different values when it comes to media freedom, President Barack Obama said Sunday, playing down an airport dispute over his arrival that spiralled into suggestions of snubs and insults.

A Chinese official who wanted US reporters travelling with the president to move shouted at a White House staffer: "This is our country! This is our airport!"

Chinese government minders confronted National Security Advisor Susan Rice when she moved closer to Obama as he walked from Air Force One after landing in the Chinese city of Hangzhou for a G20 summit.

And when US security personnel decided Obama should leave the plane using its built-in staircase, he was left stepping onto the tarmac rather than a red carpet, prompting speculation of a snub.

But the US leader said the tensions were the result of different approaches to the media, as well as the sheer scale of the US operation when he travels.

Washington stands up for press freedom and human rights and -- whatever the fallout -- does not "leave our values and ideals behind when we take these trips", he said.

"It can cause some friction. The seams are showing a little more than usual in terms of some of the negotiations and jostling that takes place behind the scenes," Obama told reporters on Sunday.

"Part of it is we also have a much bigger footprint than a lot of other countries. And we've got a lot of planes, a lot of helicopters, a lot of cars, a lot of guys. You know, if you're a host country, sometimes it may feel a little bit much."

- 'No good to be rude' -

US sources told AFP that the staircase incident stemmed from their own decision to use Air Force One's own staircase, rather than the one proffered by airport authorities.

The South China Morning Post newspaper also quoted a Chinese foreign ministry official as saying: "US side complained that the driver doesn’t speak English and can’t understand security instructions... and insisted that they didn’t need the staircase."

"It would do China no good in treating Obama rudely," he added.

Both Xi and Obama are eager to smooth over their differences and find common ground as the American leader approaches the end of his term and looks to cement his legacy, and his Chinese counterpart seeks a greater role on the world's diplomatic stage.

Obama said it was not the first time Washington's differences with Beijing had erupted during a visit, and that clashing values were also on display in his discussions with Xi.

"And so I wouldn't over-crank the significance of it," he said.

"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," he said.

Kerfuffles over press access are common in China, where the ruling Communist Party sees the media more as a tool for forwarding its political agenda than an independent check on governance.

The country tightly controls domestic journalism, regularly censoring reporting on issues it deems sensitive or unflattering.

Its approach is particularly apparent in Hangzhou, where a suffocating security presence is designed to avoid any disruption to an event China sees as an opportunity to display its global leadership credentials.