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Obama steers clear of troubled waters in comments at G20 summit

US President Barack Obama steered clear of disputes in the South China Sea in his press conference at the end of the Group of 20 (G20) summit on Monday, focusing ­instead on joint efforts to combat crime and drug trafficking with the Philippines.

Answering a question on US-Philippine ties, Obama said he had asked his administration to check if the time was ripe for constructive talks with the new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

The Philippines was among the US’ “closest friends and allies”, but “I always want to make sure if I have a meeting, it is productive”, he said at a hotel in the centre of host city Hangzhou.

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“Undoubtedly, if we have a meeting, [drug trafficking] is something going to be brought up, and my expectation and my hope is it would be dealt with constructively,” Obama said.

He also said joint efforts in the fight against drugs would be “consistent with the international norms”.

During the packed press conference, which went for over 40 minutes and was attended by more than 100 members of the media,the US president also avoided mention of the return of the US Navy to a base in the Philippines.Instead, he covered his planned visit to Laos, his “candid and blunt” bilateral talks with Russia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, taxation and overcapacity.

No questions on overall Sino-US ties were raised.

Obama had talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Saturday, during which they discussed maritime disputes.

The press conference by the US president capped a trip that started with a stumble on the tarmac in Hangzhou on Saturday.

Instead of disembarking Air Force One via a rolling red-carpet staircase, Obama exited through a little-used set of steps in an incident that raised speculation of a diplomatic snub by China.

G20 ‘staircase snub’ for Obama was United States’ decision, reveals Chinese official

But on Monday, Beijing officially levelled responsibility for the incident on the United States and members of the media.

“I think if only the American group had respected the working arrangements first made with China then this wouldn’t have occurred,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a daily press briefing in Beijing.

“You saw that all the other country leaders used the stairs that China provided. So why was it only the United States that didn’t? These were the stairs the United States requested.”

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Hua questioned why China would intentionally create trouble for the United States.

She also said the incident was not a high-level issue, echoing comments made by Obama on Sunday.

Tensions on the tarmac also flared when a Chinese security official blocked US National Security Adviser Susan Rice and yelled at another US official who was trying to help journalists get closer to Obama.

Hua criticised the media for not respecting China’s rules on where to stand to capture images of Obama leaving the plane, adding there were no problems with reporters from other countries.