Obama Downplays Tensions After Skirmishes During China Visit

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  • Obama, Xi took night-time stroll despite continued differences
  • Chinese official, Obama aide in dispute on airport tarmac

President Barack Obama downplayed dust-ups involving the U.S. delegation and Chinese security officials during the opening hours of his trip to Hangzhou for the G-20 summit, but said Sunday the U.S. would not apologize for its efforts to expand media access in the country.

"We don’t leave our values and ideals behind when we take these trips," Obama said after a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, when asked about the incidents. "It can cause some friction. It’s not the first time it’s happened."

The early hours of Obama’s trip were marred by confrontations involving Chinese security officials, overshadowing his final visit to Asia as leader ahead of the November presidential election. They highlighted the continued differences between the world’s two largest economies that have sparked tensions over trade, cybersecurity and maritime security.

When Air Force One touched down at the Hangzhou airport, Obama was not greeted, as is customary, by a staircase, but had to deplane from the lower level of his 747 jet. Reporters and U.S. officials were kept away from the welcoming ceremony by a rope line.

When the president’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, and her deputy, Ben Rhodes, attempted to pass under the barricade, they were confronted by a Chinese security official who was berating reporters attempting to capture the president’s arrival. A member of the Secret Service detail eventually separated the official from Rice.

"They did things that weren’t anticipated," Rice later told reporters covering Saturday night’s meeting between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Ahead of that meeting, reporters queuing to pass through security observed a Chinese security guard ripping credentials from an individual’s neck following a scuffle, apparently over access to the event. U.S. officials intervened.

‘Broader Scope’

Obama said ties with China remained strong and said not to "overcrank" the significance of the incidents. Foreign countries often bristle at U.S. security and press requirements, Obama said, and visitors to the U.S. can be frustrated by security protocols.

"None of this detracts from the broader scope of the relationship," Obama said, calling his talks with Xi "extraordinarily productive." His visit to China has also featured moments designed to project a sense of collaboration between the leaders.

Following their meeting Saturday night, the pair took a moonlit stroll around West Lake, a World Heritage Site in Hangzhou. The walk, which included tea, saw them discussing their exercise routines and the history of the temples and pagodas that dot the scenic grounds.

The seemingly informal but carefully orchestrated stroll was intended as a chance for the leaders to ruminate on the final months of a working partnership that has paid dividends for both.

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The two stressed they were willing and able to work collaboratively. Xi, speaking before the meeting, said China wanted no confrontation with the U.S. and sought a sustainable relationship.

The leaders were able to point to tangible progress on issues other than climate change. The countries announced new measures designed to combat the prevalence in the U.S. of fentanyl, a chemical used to manufacture methamphetamine and powerful synthetic opioids that caused the death of music superstar Prince. The majority of fentanyl imported by drug traffickers in the U.S. comes from China.

The moonlight walk served as a bookend to some of the early days of their work on climate change, when cooperation accelerated over morning walks across the Sunnylands estate during the so-called "shirt sleeves summit" in California in 2013.

As a parting gift, Obama presented the Chinese leader with a redwood bench where the pair would escape the Palm Springs sun. The next year China and the U.S. announced a historic climate accord that paved the way for negotiations on the Paris climate accord.

Adopting Accord

On Saturday, the two countries formally adopted that agreement, designed to cap carbon emissions and the impact of climate change, in a move that they hope will inspire other nations and lead to its implementation by the end of the Obama presidency.

"Over the past few years, our joint leadership on climate has been one of the most significant drivers of global action," Obama told reporters at the event where the leaders formalized their commitment to the Paris deal.

Obama almost gave Xi his long-desired acknowledgment of a “new model of major country relations” -- a distinction that would legitimize China’s development -- during his remarks ahead of their meeting.

"We have seen steady progress during the course of my presidency and during the course of the multiple meetings that you and I have had, consistent with the notion of a new model of relations between our countries," Obama said.

South China Sea

Still, there was evidence of lingering tensions.

During their meeting, Obama stressed "America’s unwavering support for upholding human rights" as well as the need for religious freedoms, according to a statement by the White House. The leaders had what the president called a "candid" discussion on the recent arbitration tribunal ruling in favor of a Philippine challenge to China’s territorial claims over a large part of the South China Sea, with Obama pressing Xi to abide by the obligations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Other sore points aired during the conversation included U.S. concerns over hacking, and pressing Chinese leaders to transition to a market-determined exchange rate and advance financial reforms. The leaders discussed China’s role in addressing excess capacity in steel and aluminum production, the White House said.

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