From the moment Li Qiang arrived at the G20 summit over the weekend on an unassuming chartered flight, it was clear the Chinese premier had one mission in New Delhi: not to upstage his boss Xi Jinping.
China’s number-two official, whose participation was announced at the last minute after Xi skipped the summit without explanation, did not travel on one of the usual “special planes” reserved for him and the Chinese president.
Once in India, Li met US president Joe Biden and a few other leaders. But Li’s understated presence drew attention to the enigma of Xi’s absence — it was the first time the Chinese president missed the G20 — and left many wondering whether China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong would opt out of future summits, thereby reducing Beijing’s influence in international diplomacy.
“This is the first of potentially many international summits that Xi decides to skip because of diplomatic conflicts or domestic troubles,” said Neil Thomas, a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis. “This could certainly be the beginning of Xi’s retreat from the energetic diplomacy that characterised his first decade in power.”
Xi’s shunning of the G20 came just weeks after the Chinese leader strode tall at the Brics summit in Johannesburg, accepting the Order of South Africa from his hosts and championing the group’s expansion to include other largely sympathetic emerging market nations.
Even at the Brics meeting, however, there were signs of Xi’s withdrawal. The Chinese leader failed to give a speech at a business forum where he was due to appear, and there was also a hint of tensions with India when he spoke with Prime Minister Narendra Modi about their disputed Himalayan border.
These growing differences with New Delhi played a decisive role in Xi’s decision to skip the G20 summit, analysts said.
The Beijing-based China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) think-tank, which is affiliated with Beijing’s spy agency the Ministry of State Security, accused India on Saturday of increasing disharmony and geopolitical competition in the G20.
In an unusually blunt social media post, CICIR claimed India had introduced territorial disputes into the G20 by holding a side meeting in March in Arunachal Pradesh, a state on its disputed border with China, and in May in Kashmir, which is claimed by Beijing’s ally Pakistan.
New Delhi had shot itself in the foot by “undermining the co-operative atmosphere of the G20 meeting and preventing the meeting from reaching substantive results”, CICIR said.
The post also attacked India for hosting more than 120 countries in January at the Voice of Global South summit, which did not include China, Brazil and some other big developing nations.
“In general, I think the west wants to put India as the leader of the Global South and make India the world’s factory and replace China,” said Wang Yiwei, a professor at Renmin University and vice-dean of the Academy of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era.
These aspirations, coupled with India’s G20 meetings in disputed border areas and its failure to invite Pakistan to the leaders’ summit, made it difficult for President Xi to attend, Wang added.
NR Liu, an expert on China and globalisation at the University of Hong Kong, said anger in China had also been building up against India for joining the Quad, a security grouping that also includes the US, Japan and Australia.
“In this post-Covid era, China sees India as becoming part of this US plot against China,” Liu said.
Beijing has stressed that the G20 — which was established in 1999 after the Asian financial crisis — was intended to focus on international economic issues.
That stance implied that the forum should avoid subjects such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, analysts said. This year’s summit produced a statement far softer than the one at last year’s meeting in Indonesia, which Xi attended.
It could also help justify Xi’s decision to send Li, who as premier oversees China’s economy.
“The G20 is basically an economic summit and of course the premier looks after economic affairs,” said Henry Wang, president of the China Center for Globalisation in Beijing. “Also he is a new premier and hasn’t really had a chance to mingle with international leaders, so this is probably the right time for him to show up at G20.”
While Li’s substitution, which from China’s perspective went smoothly, may tempt Xi to skip similar meetings, the Chinese president will attend some summits, analysts predicted. Next year’s G20, for example, will be held in Brazil, whose government is on friendly terms with Beijing.
Xi is also expected to still prioritise relations with the US. China’s main focus will now be a possible Xi-Biden meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in November in San Francisco, Wang said.
As Xi’s trusted right-hand man, Li could be relied on to relay messages directly to the Chinese president. But real decision-making power ultimately rests with Xi, and his gradual withdrawal from international forums risks diminishing Beijing’s influence on the global stage and complicating negotiations with China, analysts said.
“If Xi goes to fewer summits, he’ll be less connected with other leaders and will rely more on second-hand accounts of diplomacy, so his decision-making is likely to deteriorate as a result,” said Thomas.
“China will become a more inflexible negotiating partner at international summits, which will erode their value for all international leaders . . . it’s a lose-lose — China loses and the world loses.”