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Little things matter for world leaders at China’s G20 summit … such as where they stand for photographs

As world leaders gather in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou for the Group of 20 (G20) summit, observers will be taking in not only their grand plans, but also small, critical details.

The furore over China’s “staircase snub” of US President Barack Obama on Saturday as he arrived at the Hangzhou airport is testament to that.

But beyond observations about the red-carpet treatment each leader receives, where the leaders and senior officials stand in the traditional photograph, for example, can also speak volumes about power politics at play.

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During the photo-taking session at this year’s G20 summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood beside China’s Xi Jinping. Turkey was the host of last year’s event in Antalya, while Germany will take over next year.

Standing next to Merkel and Erdogan were US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During the Brisbane G20 summit in 2014, Putin stood on the outer edge of the group photograph. That year, the Russian leader cut short his attendance at the summit after Western leaders snubbed him and blasted Moscow for the crisis in Ukraine.

This year, however, China has made clear that Putin is a top guest at the summit.

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This year, French President Francois Hollande, South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi were also in the front row.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in the second row.

But when Xi and Abe shared a handshake in Hangzhou on Sunday, the Chinese leader was smiling – a sharp contrast from their encounter during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum in Beijing two years ago, when Xi appeared to be scowling and both avoided eye contact in front of the cameras.

Xi had a brief chat with Obama when they shared a handshake.

The US president had earlier disembarked from his Air Force One plane through a small bare metal stairway – a break in protocol from the usual rolling red-carpet staircase that state leaders get.

Shortly before his arrival, US and Chinese officials had also engaged in a public row on the tarmac over diplomatic arrangements.

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When Xi greeted the state leaders on Sunday, his exchange with Merkel was longer than that with other leaders, while the moment shared with Park appeared less warm although both Xi and Park remained smiling.

But political influence isn’t the only factor considered when determining where each state leader stands.

According to the unwritten rules of diplomatic protocol, the position also depends on how long the person has served in the post.

This is why Obama, who usually stands in front, was put in the second row at the London summit in 2009, three months after he took office.

Top officials at major international organisations, such as International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, usually stand in the third row.

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Jockeying also takes place over the seating plan at the G20 meetings and banquet.

At the 2009 summit, then British prime minister Gordon Brown reportedly offered then French president Nicholas Sarkozy a seat at the table next to then Chinese president Hu Jintao after Sarkozy threatened to walk out of the summit.

The seating plan for meeting at the Saint Petersburg summit in 2013 was reportedly adjusted to put more distance between Obama and Putin as tensions between the US and Russia ran high over Syria.

Food selection on the menu will also be closely watched as it reflects the “soft powers” of the host country.

British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver made the 2009 banquet one to remember with his signature fresh, relaxed cooking style, serving organic Scottish salmon, shoulder of lamb and Bakewell tart to the G20 leaders.

This year’s host, the lakeside city of Hangzhou, is the proud source of Zhejiang cuisine, one of the eight great culinary traditions of Chinese cuisine.

Well-known Hangzhou dishes, such as West Lake fish in vinegar gravy, Dongpo pork and Beggar’s Chicken, are firm favourites for the menu.

Renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou has been appointed director for this year’s gala night at the summit. An orchestra performance would be performed on the West Lake.

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