By the short stairs

True to his nickname, “No Drama Obama,” the American president wants it known that he took no umbrage at the fact that there was no stairway waiting to help him descend from Air Force One last week when he landed in Hangzhou. But he’s a little miffed that critics have seized on that incident as symbolic of tensions in the US-China relationship.

New York Times correspondent Mark Landler detected a “sarcastic edge” in Obama’s reply to questions from the White House press corps in Luang Prabang, the last stop of what surely will be Obama’s final visit to the region as president. Obama seemed especially peeved by suggestions that “stair-gate” proves his administration’s much-touted “pivot” to Asia is a flop.

“If this theory about my reception and my rebalance policy is based on me going down the short stairs in China, yes, I think that is overblown,” Obama said. “Any reasonable person, certainly any person in the region, would be puzzled as to how this became somehow indicative of the work that we’ve done here.”

Well, reasonable people can disagree. And sometimes even unreasonable people offer compelling arguments. In this case, Charles Krauthammer (with whom I rarely agree on anything) raises an excellent point. In a recent Washington Post column he observes that no nation pays more attention to matters of diplomatic protocol than China.  China’s leaders, says Krauthammer, are “masters of every tributary gesture, every nuance of hierarchical ritual. In a land so exquisitely sensitive to protocol, rolling staircases don’t just disappear at arrival ceremonies.”

Yes, Krauthammer is a conservative pundit with a political axe to grind. But he makes a case with which few foreign China experts–regardless of their partisan affiliations–would disagree. Bill Bishop, editor of the popular Sinocism newsletter, says China’s treatment of Obama should be recognized for what it was: a deliberate, “straight-up snub” intended “to make the Americans look diminished and weak.” The Chinese, says Bishop, were sending a clear message: “‘Look, we can make the American president go out of the ass of the plane.’”

On his ChinaSolved.com blog, veteran China negotiator Andrew Hupert argues that what happened to Obama offers direct lessons for any foreign executive doing business with the Chinese. Foremost among them: if you get snubbed by your Chinese counterparts, don’t try to deny it; own it and learn from it.

Mitigating or glossing over the conflict as “unimportant” is counter-productive and dangerous. This was a significant event, and if you are negotiating with a Chinese counter-party then you need a plan for dealing with similar encounters.

Ignoring them or pretending that they are immaterial to your business is a major blunder. Your negotiating counter-party is a serious person with experience, values, and attitudes that are very different from yours. Culture gaps are real, and they are not going away. If you are going to work with counter-party, then these differences will be part of your business — and part of your life.

On the China Law blog, Dan Harris has a similar take:

Our China lawyers too often encounter minimizing or tortured explanations of Chinese behavior from our clients. Chinese company didn’t pay on time? Must be because it didn’t understand the contract? Chinese company said it would do X and then did the exact opposite? Must be because of Chinese cultural differences. We hear these sorts of explanations all the time and our response to them is always something along the following lines: these are smart people who know exactly what they are doing. They are testing you and if you let them get away with it this time, you will be opening up the door to future incidents.

…or disappearing stairways.

 

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