President Obama’s final trip to Asia was plagued by a series of events that shed light on America’s diminished role in global affairs and exposed shortcomings in the White House’s emphasis on diplomacy over hard power.
Obama hailed the formal adoption of the Paris climate accords by the United States and China ahead of the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, as a success, calling the agreement to combat global warming "pivotal."
Recent Stories in National Security
But Obama’s presence at the summit was otherwise marred by diplomatic slights and failed efforts to promote peace, literally from the moment of the president’s arrival.
When Obama flew into China on Saturday, he was not welcomed in traditional diplomatic fashion with a red carpet and mobile staircase allowing him to descend from Air Force One. Instead, the president disembarked the aircraft using a back exit after touching down in Hangzhou.
At the same time, Chinese officials corralled American reporters behind a rope, preventing them from witnessing Obama’s arrival and sparking skirmishes with White House officials. A Chinese official confronted Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, on the tarmac and tried to prevent her from bypassing the media rope line and walking to the president’s motorcade, prompting the Secret Service to intervene.
The same Chinese official was caught on video shouting at a White House press aide who was showing foreign journalists where to stand as Obama exited Air Force One, according to Reuters. "This is our plane. We’re standing under the wing," the aide said. "This is our country. This is our airport. Okay?" a Chinese official shouted back at her.
The scuffles occurred just before Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared together to announce their countries’ formal adoption of the international climate change deal brokered in Paris last December.
The president’s reception in China was widely viewed as embarrassing, though Obama sought to downplay the incident. "I wouldn’t overcrank the significance," the president told reporters of the airport confrontations on Sunday.
Meanwhile, China blamed the American media for the incident. China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday that it was a "small episode," knocking the "highly unprofessional" U.S. media for "making an issue out of it."
As world leaders gathered at the G-20 Summit, China also appeared to be bucking U.S. warnings in the South China Sea. According to accounts from Philippine officials, at least eight Chinese vessels including four Chinese coast guard ships, were witnessed in the area of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in recent days.
Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Sunday that his country has demanded an explanation for the ships, which were spotted from the air and could signal that China is preparing for construction on the shoal. China has controlled the shoal since 2012, though an international tribunal ruled in July that Beijing’s claims there are unsubstantiated by historical evidence.
China has refused to accept the ruling and has also pursued its aggressive island building in other parts of the South China Sea, despite urgings from the United States.
America’s strained relations with Russia, like those with China, were also on display during the economic summit. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpoint, Sergei Lavrov, met unsuccessfully on Sunday and Monday to come to terms on a ceasefire deal aimed at staunching violence in Syria and paving the way for a political solution to that country’s years-long civil war.
It was the second time in less than two weeks that Kerry and Lavrov failed to reach an agreement on Syria that would involve closer military cooperation between the United States and Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Officials reportedly scrambled to remove a second podium that had been set up at a media briefing that Kerry and Lavrov were expected to appear at jointly on Sunday to announce an agreement.
Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on the sidelines of the summit for more than an hour Monday to iron out their differences but were unable to cement a joint agreement on Syria, which Obama said was a result of "gaps of trust" between the two nations.
The Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to end the violence in Syria have been unsuccessful. A ceasefire agreement brokered with Russia in February unraveled shortly after it took effect, with Russia and anti-government forces accusing each other of breaching it.
The talks between Obama and Putin also included the conflict in Ukraine, which has intensified in recent weeks. At the summit, Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande renewed appeals for Russia to abide by the Minsk ceasefire agreement that has failed to curtail fighting in Ukraine since 2014.
Fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces has persisted for more than two years, with U.S. and international sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea failing to discourage Moscow’s aggression. Obama has been criticized for withholding lethal aid from Ukraine that would bolster its defenses against Russian-backed forces.
As Obama urged Russia to implement the Minsk agreement at the G-20 Summit on Monday, Moscow began large-scale military exercises on the eastern border with Ukraine near Crimea. The exercises in Moscow’s southern military district will take place until Sept. 10 and involve 12,500 service members in addition to air and naval forces in the Black and Caspian Seas.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Tuesday that Ukraine has faced increasing difficulty in getting Western support for combatting threats from Russia. He said the possibility of a full-scale invasion by Russia could not be ruled out.
"Ukraine will continue to need strong international support in the fight against Russian aggression," he said at the start of September’s parliament session. "But securing this support is becoming increasingly difficult for our diplomats due to different objective and subjective factors."
Obama traveled to Laos from China, where he is meeting with Asian leaders on the sidelines of the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He was forced to cancel a planned discussion with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte after the bombastic leader referred to the American president as a "son of a bitch" when asked how he would respond if Obama questioned him on extrajudicial killings in his push to end the drug trade.
"I am a president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. Do not just throw questions. Putang ina I will swear at you in that forum," Duterte told reporters on Monday, using a Tagalog phrase meaning "son of a bitch."
The White House said early Tuesday that the bilateral meeting with Duterte, who has since expressed regret over the comment, had been canceled.
Obama, who cast himself as a global unifier and a broker of peace during his first campaign for president, will return from his 11th and final trip to Asia on Friday, with four months left in his term.