8 September 2023

Xi Jinping skipping G20 Summit says a lot about how China sees India

How should India interpret Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to not attend the G20 leader’s summit in New Delhi?

Domestic political crises are common enough reasons for leaders to want to skip foreign visits. There are reports that influential elders of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) have expressed their unhappiness at the present state of the country under Xi. However, Xi’s control over China’s security and coercive apparatuses is unchallenged. In practical political terms, too, what counts is the fact that he has packed the CPC’s highest echelons with his supporters at its last national congress in 2022.

There is, however, an economic crisis underway in China and the explanation has been put forward that Xi wanted to avoid questions on the subject or that he preferred to stay home to focus on it — the CPC Central Committee is expected to convene its third plenum, usually reserved for economic issues, in a few weeks from now. 

While these come across as plausible explanations, neither Xi nor his representatives abroad have so far been known to allow China’s domestic problems to hold them back from extolling China’s virtues — think of its wolf warrior diplomats amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Nor do these explanations consider China’s hitherto aggressive promotion of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or of bilateral trade and services agreements, which are crucial to its export-led model of economic growth. 

In any case, the G20 Summit does not discuss an individual country or its economy, and such global forums are important opportunities for Beijing to push its foreign policy agenda. The launch of three new initiatives scaling up from the BRI — the Global Development, Security and Civilisation Initiatives — demand greater Chinese engagement with the world, not less.

India’s hosting of the G20 Summit does, however, provide a case where domestic and external interests come together for the Chinese decision to downgrade its participation. New Delhi’s own assertive foreign policy and domestic dynamics in many ways challenge a lot of what China is trying to promote in terms of narratives at home and abroad.

Consider, for example, China’s objection to the insertion of the Sanskrit expression ‘vasudaiva kudambakam’ in G20 documents. The meanings or implications of the phrase are less the issue than the fact it is one that reminds the world of India’s own long history and civilisational heritage, making India-China comparisons inevitable. For a country and a political party with an acute sense of history and a record of exploiting, or abusing, it to protect and promote regime interests, the CPC understands well New Delhi’s approaches. From Beijing’s perspective, India-China comparisons would mean a relative lowering of China’s status when its objective is to make it look like the only dyad in the world that matters is the US-China one.

It makes sense for Xi, therefore, to skip a meeting of global leaders where he cannot set the agenda, or where he might be seen as just another leader among many, and where the stage has been set for all eyes to be continuously on India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Meanwhile, Xi is also absent from meetings around the 43rd ASEAN Summit and related meetings in Jakarta, Indonesia just before the G20 Summit as is United States President Joe Biden. Interestingly, China’s Global Times ran an editorial interpreting Biden’s absence as a good thing that would prevent focus on “geopolitical and security rhetoric”, without explaining why Xi too was missing and had sent Premier Li Qiang in his stead. The editorial does highlight though the fact that Biden is visiting India for the G20 Summit and Vietnam soon after with the latter visit being interpreted as part of a US attempt to “split” ASEAN. 

There is, therefore, also a geopolitical explanation for Xi’s skipping the G20 Summit. Beijing’s concerns about an India-US partnership at containing China are very real. To be present at a world forum where India-US bonhomie would be on prominent display, would make it look like Xi were ineffective at preventing this partnership from growing. While it would draw attention to China’s violation of bilateral boundary agreements and treaties with India as evident in the continuing tensions on the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh, the more consequential impact of Xi’s presence would have been to show that China’s attempt to deter India from a closer partnership with the US through military coercion had not worked. Instead, the India-China relationship appears to have frozen across the spectrum and there is very little that the Chinese seem able or willing to do that will change the current Indian course.

India’s engagements with China in multilateral forums such as BRICS that leave out the US, appear on the whole to have little substance. New Delhi’s decision earlier this year to hold an online summit of the leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – another China-dominated platform – rather than host an in-person summit stands in sharp contrast to its enthusiasm for the G20 leaders’ summit.

Just like the G20 Summit in Hangzhou in 2016 was seen as a matter of national and international prestige by the Chinese — Xi cannot be unaware that the New Delhi summit is also of similar importance for the Indian government. His absence from the Indian capital later this week, therefore, is a clear signal as any that China views its ties with India as being irretrievable in the short to medium term at least, if not over the longer term.

China clearly does not want to help in creating the impression that India is a global player, let alone one that can compete with China. However, Xi’s absence is also an opportunity for India to better shape a global leadership and agenda more attuned to its interests than it has been able to with the recent expansion of BRICS membership.


Originally published in Deccan Herald on 07 September 2023