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Is Xi Jinping’s likely absence at G20 summit a blessing in disguise?

Chinese President Xi Jinping misses G20 summit

The media and commentators, both in India and in several other countries, have gone into a tizzy since Reuters reported on 31st August that the Chinese President will in all likelihood not be participating in the G20 Summit in New Delhi on 9-10th September, 2023. No official announcement to this effect has been made either by the Chinese or Indian side so far. Circumstantial evidence, however, suggests that the Chinese Premier Li Qiang will be representing his President at the Summit.

Analysts have, however, been busy since this news erupted in deciphering the reasons and implications of this decision. It had been known for some time that Russian President Putin would not be attending the G20 Summit. This had not raised many eyebrows or attracted much commentary as firstly, Putin had not attended the recently held BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, nor even the last G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia. Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov had ably represented his country at these two Summits.

Secondly, it is well known that Putin has had his hands full with the so-called ‘’special military operation’’ that Russia launched against Ukraine 18 months ago. It was then assumed that Russia would be able to announce ‘’Mission Accomplished’’ within a few weeks if not days. Today after 18 months of the conflict, no end appears to be in sight and Putin can be expected to be busy dealing with it on a daily basis. Putin did attend the SCO Summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in September, 2022 and several other Summits in neighbouring countries but all those were held without the presence of leaders of USA or other Western countries with whom Russia has had a raging battle, both literally and figuratively, since the Ukraine conflict commenced.

There is speculation that Xi might take this decision because he wishes to embarrass India and particularly PM Modi who has used India’s G20 Presidency to showcase India’s rich cultural heritage, vibrant diversity, economic dynamism and youth vitality. Xi apparently might not want to add to the prestige and honor that its southern neighbor (and adversary) will be able to garner by seamlessly hosting the prestigious G20 Summit. He might be thinking that his absence will be seen as a snub to India and might take away some of the glitter and sheen from that event.

Xi’s possible absence from the New Delhi G20 Summit could also be interpreted to suggest that he is uncomfortable and unsure about meeting some of his counterparts, particularly President Joe Biden in the wake of progressively deteriorating relations between China and USA, as also with his host PM Modi on account of the tense relations between the two countries since April, 2020 when China unilaterally violated its commitments under the 1993 and 1996 bilateral agreements to maintain peace and tranquility on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by not moving large numbers of security forces and heavy armor close to the LAC. His absence would, however, send out a strong message that Xi as the leader of a significant power, vying for the status of a great power, is not serious about assuming its global responsibilities by contributing to the deliberations and decisions at the Summit. It can also be speculated that in view of the serious downturn in China’s domestic economy, the unrest amongst the youth on account of drying up economic opportunities and the unsteady domestic security situation, Xi has been forced to stay at home and not venture out for the G20 Summit.

From India’s perspective, it would be a welcome move if Xi were to stay away from the Summit. Right from the very beginning, India has been trying to focus all its energies and discussions on trade, economic and financial challenges that afflict the world, particularly the more than 100 developing countries. The issue of the Russia-Ukraine conflict has been hanging ominously over these deliberations. It was the case during much of the Indonesian G20 Presidency. And has also been the case for the whole duration of the Indian Presidency. It would be India’s endeavour to find a suitable language (as was done in Bali by using the comment of PM Modi to President Putin in Samarkand that ‘’this is not an era of war’’) on the political aspect of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which would be acceptable to all participants and then concentrate on the economic challenges that the world is grappling with.

Three years of Covid and 18 months of the conflict in Europe have dealt a body blow to the economies of a large number of developing countries. The major challenges confronting the world range from shortages of food, fertilizers, energy, supply chain disruptions, rising debt and growing inflation, particularly in the developing world, to the long term challenges of achieving sustainable development goals, tackling climate change, reforming multilateralism and Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), promoting women led development, providing opportunities for youth and many more.

Since it took over the Presidency of the G20 on 1st December, 2022, India has been working assiduously to arrive at solutions to these disruptions and threats. With just a few days more to go for the Summit, it appears that India is very close to leaving an indelible imprint on the evolution of G20. In addition to significant forward movement on the above issues, addition of the African Union as the 21st Member of the Organization would make India’s Presidency truly historic and memorable.

If Xi were to participate in the Summit, much of the attention of the hosts as well as of the media, both national and global, would be on his activities, movements, meetings, body language etc. There would be much greater interest and attention on the possibility of bilateral meetings between Biden and Xi, as well as between PM Modi and Xi. This would necessarily distract from the focus that should rightly be accorded to the deliberations under the G20 Agenda.  Xi would also be able to steal some light and thunder from PM Modi. Without the discomfort and uneasiness of Xi’s presence, PM Modi will be able to play the charming host and hopefully steer the proceedings of the Summit to a successful outcome.

Although China has maintained that it would be supportive to make India’s G20 Presidency a success, it has been obstructionist on a number of procedural and substantive issues. One of the latest is China’s objection to use of the term ‘’VasudhaivaKutumbakam’’ in Hindi which is not the official G20 language. India through its vast experience of dealing with China knows that China is very good at dishing out platitudes and homilies but not in observing them in letter and spirit. This has unfortunately been its track record in several areas in the G20 also.

Even in Xi’s absence, there should be no doubt that China’s national positions on the various issues under discussion like Climate Change, reform of MDBs, debt alleviation of developing countries etc. will be effectively articulated by his representative, as has been the case of the Russian foreign minister Lavrov standing in for his President in the last few Summits. There should hence be no concern that Xi’s absence will somehow mean that China’s support for some major decisions on critical issues at the G20 Summit is lacking.

On the bilateral front, the only downside of Xi’s non-participation would be that there would be no opportunity for a bilateral tete-a-tete between him and PM Modi. Since October 2019, PM Modi and Xi have met only very briefly at the Summits in Bali in November, 2022 and in Johannesburg in July, 2023.   It is imperative to break the ice between the two sides, the sooner the better. The next opportunity could be at the APEC Summit in San Francisco in November, 2023 at which PM Modi has been invited as a Special Guest.

India has assumed the Presidency of the G20 at a very critical juncture. This is when the whole world is reeling under the continuing impact of the Covid as well as the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The world has huge hopes and expectations of India’s G20 Presidency not only because of the manner in which it has effectively dealt with the challenges of Covid and the Russia-Ukraine conflict but has also reached out in these difficult times to many countries of the Global South with vaccines, medicines, food, fertilizers, fuel etc. to alleviate their suffering. Through its pronouncements and actions India has emerged as a prominent Voice of the Global South. India’s elevation from the 10th to the 5th largest economy in the world over the last 9 years and the flawless landing of Chandrayaan-3 on the Southern pole of the moon have significantly enhanced India’s prestige and stature in the global community.

Xi will be scoring a self goal and shooting himself in the foot if he decides not to participate in the New Delhi G20 Summit. He will, however, be doing India a huge favour by staying away as this will significantly increase the chances of a successful G20 Summit and also enable India to conduct the Summit in a streamlined and flawless manner without any hiccups.

Also Read: Chinese President Xi Jinping likely to skip G20 Summit in Delhi

(Ashok Sajjanhar is a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. He is an Executive Council Member at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis and President, Institute of Global Studies. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)