BEIJING, CHINA — President Xi Jinping’s unexplained decision to snub the G20 summit underlines Beijing’s frayed ties with other major powers as well as growing secrecy at the top of the ruling Communist Party, China analysts told AFP.
Beijing’s foreign ministry said Monday that Premier Li Qiang would join the leaders of the world’s biggest economies in New Delhi this weekend, effectively confirming Xi’s absence.
No reason was given why Xi will not attend the summit, which he has not skipped since coming to power, except Rome in 2021 when he participated by video link owing to Covid pandemic restrictions.
His probable absence draws a sharp contrast with his appearance at the BRICS summit of emerging economies in South Africa last month.
There, Xi was front and centre as the bloc agreed to admit six new members in what he called a “historic” achievement.
The emphasis on ties with the developing world reflects Beijing’s efforts to “create an alternative… to the liberal international order dominated by the US since the end of World War Two”, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
The realignment “is China-friendly if not Sino-centric, with support being gathered and consolidated in the Global South”, Tsang told AFP.
“The G20… is not (something) that China can dominate, so it is given lower priority. I am not saying that Xi is anti-G20, just (that he does) not put it on par in importance to BRICS.”
This year’s apparent G20 no-show also dampens hopes of renewed engagement with Western powers following Xi’s magnanimous — though carefully choreographed — centre-stage appearance at the last edition in November in Bali.
Experts said long-running tensions with hosts India may have driven the decision.
“Xi skipping the G20 came as a disappointment, but not really a surprise,” said Yun Sun, China programme director at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
“China-India relations have not been smooth since 2020, and China has been complaining that India is using the G20 to consolidate its claim of disputed territory,” she said.
Beijing and New Delhi have a decades-long border dispute and deadly brawls have erupted along the vast Himalayan boundary in recent years.
China also bristles at India’s membership of the so-called Quad, a security partnership with Australia, Japan and the United States that Beijing views as an effort to contain its influence in Asia.
Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, said India had also recently displayed “stronger opposition to China’s claims over the South China Sea… and escalated a ban or strict restrictions on China’s tech exports and direct investments”.
“These (issues) have existed for years and will last long into the future, whether situational… events happen at this or that moment,” he said.
There were expectations that Xi may use the G20 to meet President Joe Biden, with his American counterpart saying last week he would be “disappointed” if the Chinese leader did not show up.
Beijing and Washington have clashed in recent years over a range of issues, from trade to technology and human rights.
However, the “increasingly clear” prospect of a November meeting at the APEC summit in San Francisco may have made Xi’s G20 attendance “less imperative”, Sun said.
Don’t ask why
A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry deflected questions at a media briefing this week about Xi’s absence.
Asked directly why Xi was not attending, spokeswoman Mao Ning said: “I made an announcement about this just now.”
She then repeated a statement detailing Premier Li Qiang’s planned visit to India, which made no mention of Xi himself.
China’s Communist Party rarely discloses information about top leaders but its reflexive secrecy has made repeated headlines in recent months.
Former foreign minister Qin Gang was abruptly removed from his post in July and has not been seen in public since.
And Xi failed to appear for a scheduled speech at the BRICS summit, sending his commerce minister to read it on his behalf.
Tsang, of SOAS, said there was a “reasonable chance” that Xi, who turned 70 this year, may be suffering from health problems.
“Xi is taking China further in the totalitarian direction, so greater control and greater secrecy are part of the process,” Tsang said.
One diplomat from a G20 nation also told AFP Xi may want to avoid hard questions about refusing to condemn Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
“The emperor does not like to be asked uncomfortable questions,” he said.