Chinese President Xi Jinping first tried to avoid meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden and other world leaders by cancelling his scheduled appearance at the two-day G20 summit in Delhi starting September 9. He has now asked his Ministry of Security to find reasons that would allow him to skip the next major international meet in November.
The Chinese foreign ministry has said Premier Li Qiang will attend the G20 while suggesting that Xi will skip it. Li was earlier the Communist Party chief for Shanghai city but he has very little experience in the diplomatic field.
“Premier Li Qiang will elaborate on China’s views and propositions on G20 cooperation, promote the G20 to strengthen solidarity and cooperation and work together to address global economic and development challenges,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.
China is ready to work with all parties “to jointly promote the success of the G20” summit and “make positive contributions to promoting the stable recovery of the world economy and promoting sustainable development,” Mao said.
But, analysts say Premier Li will be directed by Xi sitting in Beijing and will likely take no initiatives on his own. As with most Chinese leaders, he will try not to raise his international profile because Xi may not like it.
Looking for excuses
At another level, China’s Ministry of Security has indicated that Xi may not attend another important international meeting – the Asia Pacific Leaders’ meet at San Francisco in November.
In a statement, China’s Ministry of Security found fault with Washington’s “two-faced” China policy. “To truly realise the move from Bali to San Francisco, the US needs to show real sincerity,” it said. Bali is where the last G20 meeting took place, and San Francisco is the site of the upcoming conclave of Asia Pacific leaders.
The ministry said the US has taken several steps to undermine China as it “downplayed China’s economy” and approved arms sales and military assistance to Taiwan. China regards Taiwan as part of its territory and opposes American efforts to arm the island.
By complaining against the US, China is preparing grounds for Xi Jinping to skip the meeting in San Francisco, which will be attended by several world leaders including President Biden.
Biden, who is expected to discuss weighty international issues with the Chinese leader, said he was disappointed by Xi’s decision to stay away. But, he is still hoping Xi will attend the meeting in San Francisco. “I am disappointed, but I am going to get to see him,” he said.
Why is Xi passing up the opportunity to interact with world leaders, which is a reversal of his policy of presenting himself as a global leader and peacemaker on different international forums?
The Chinese President is clearly trying to avoid awkward questions about the state of the Chinese economy, which is a matter of grave concern to financial markets the world over. China’s global influence has severely declined due to the economic slide seen even after the end of the Covid pandemic period, and bleak prospects for 2024.
Within China, the ruling Communist Party is reassessing the country’s economic policy because foreign direct investments have fallen to the lowest level in 25 years, and the US is creating new hurdles in the way of Chinese companies almost every month. The party is also worried about internal turmoil as urban youth employment has fallen to the lowest level in decades. Put simply, Xi finds himself unable to defend his governance on the world stage at this point.
Xi feels isolated
The absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will not come due to his involvement in the Ukraine war, is possibly the other reason he does not want to show up. Xi and Putin have been working together, co-ordinating their responses to global issues, in most international events in recent years. The absence of Putin makes Xi vulnerable to being cornered by Western countries on a range of issues including Ukraine and the Taiwan situation.
What is more, China has few friends in the G20 barring Saudi Arabia, Argentina and Turkey. Even these countries are unlikely to stand by China if they face pressures from the US in an international forum. Most of China’s close partners are underdeveloped countries -which are not part of G20–that need Chinese financing for infrastructure projects and other reasons.
China recently witnessed a serious military challenge as the Philippines joined Australia in conducting a naval exercise in the South China Sea. The exercise, conducted with US support, was a direct challenge to China, which regards most of the sea area as its own territory. The Chinese navy has often chased away the Philippines naval vessels from the area.
Attending the G20 would amount to endorsing India’s leadership position. The Narendra Modi government has taken several diplomatic initiatives including the move to make the African Union, which has 51 member countries, as a member of G20. India’s influence has also grown due to its economic rise, its emergence as the world’s most populated country and the successful launch of Chandrayan on the moon’s surface.
Endorsing India’s leadership role is something Xi would not want to do as China continues to create trouble for India on the borders, and stonewall efforts to settle the border dispute. The two countries recently expelled each other’s journalists.
Biden backs India
The US has been keen to encourage India to take more leadership roles in a manner that acts as a counterweight to China’s influence in the world. Xi is in no mood to endorse such a situation with his presence in New Delhi.
President Biden is visiting New Delhi for bilateral talks with Prime Minister Modi as a means to boost India’s position on September 7, two days before the G20 begins on September 9. The announcement is significant because it came soon after the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed that Xi would not be visiting New Delhi.
China has blocked several proposals that India has made in different sectoral meetings like tourism and climate change connected with the G20. Beijing’s goal is to block the possibility of a joint communique at the end of the meeting to stop India from claiming success.
By coming to New Delhi ahead of schedule, Biden is trying to pull his weight for India and make the G20 a reasonable success. However, the US and other Western countries are unlikely to push through a resolution on Ukraine because representatives from China and Russia would oppose it tooth and nail.
(Saibal Dasgupta is a Senior Journalist)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.