When US President Barack Obama attempted to leave Air
Force One upon arriving at Hangzhou, China, just southwest of Shanghai, he
found that no staircase or red carpet awaited him. Instead, he and his staff
were forced to use an alternative exit from the aircraft, only to find
additional restrictions placed upon them on the tarmac.
There was no staircase for Obama to exit the plane and
descend on the red carpet. Obama used an alternative exit.
On the tarmac, a quarrel broke out between a
presidential aide and a Chinese official who demanded the journalists traveling
with Obama be prohibited from getting anywhere near him. It was a breach of the
tradition observed whenever the American president arrives in a foreign
When the White House official insisted the U.S. would set the rules for its own
leader, her Chinese counterpart shot back.
“This is our country! This is our airport!” the Chinese official yelled.
Rather than accept and adapt to the conditions set
forth by their Chinese hosts, the President’s staff quarrelled with them,
marking yet another ungraceful bout of American exceptionalism where even in
another’s country, America’s will is expected to be fulfilled.
Reflecting on the event, President Obama made cryptic
comments seemingly both attempting to downplay the event as a mere oversight,
but alluding to the fact that it was more than a mere oversight by their
And in fact, it was no oversight. It was a clear
message to America that the age of American exceptionalism, particularly in
Asia, is over.
America’s Ungraceful Exit from Asia
In and of itself, President Obama’s ungraceful exit
from Air Force One may seem like an insignificant event. When added together
with a general decline of American influence and regarding the respect it had
once commanded across Asia, it is highly symbolic of a global hegemon being
pushed from an entire corner of the globe.
The “ruling” was allegedly made in favour of the
Philippines, despite the legal team being headed by an American, Paul S.
Reichler of Foley Hoag. Despite what Washington believed would be a crushing
rhetorical blow to Beijing, not only did Beijing dismiss the entire proceeding
out of hand, the Philippines itself refused to capitalise on the transparently
politically-motivated and provocative ruling.
US pressure on the Philippines, until recently
considered a stalwart ally, even a subordinate functionary of Washington,
eventually resulted in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte directly
mocking America’s ambassador to the nation, denouncing him
as an effeminate meddler.
The previous year, the US had been pressuring Thailand
to allow Chinese terror suspects to travel onward to Turkey despite an
extradition request from China. Thailand ignored US demands and returned the
suspects to face justice in China.
In both cases terrorism struck shortly after, with a
bomb striking in the centre of Bangkok killing 20 and maiming many more, and
just recently a bomb exploding in the Philippine city of Davao, where
President Duterte had previously served as mayor.
In essence, while the US announced its “pivot” toward
Asia, Asia itself appears to be pivoting away from the US. Thus, the incident
on the tarmac in Hangzhou is a microcosm of what is taking place across Asia,
an unwillingness of locals to further capitulate to American exceptionalism,
and an ungraceful America unable to recognise or adapt to this shifting
In the end, America with its hegemonic hubris will
ensure that it is fully pushed out of Asia, missing what is perhaps a final
opportunity to readjust its relationship with the region away from adversarial
domination toward something more equitable, proportional and constructive.