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Speculation grows over Xi Jinping's G20 absence

Matthias von Hein
September 8, 2023

China's head of state and party leader has attended every G20 summit in the last decade. For the one coming up in India, he will be sending someone in his stead.

Xi in Johannesburg at the BRICS summit
Xi has been a fixture at G20 summits for a decade, but he's missing this time.Image: Sergei Bobylev/dpa/picture alliance

This weekend is being billed as India's moment, when leaders from the world's top 20 economies travel to Delhi for the G20 summit. But one major leader will be conspicuously absent: China's Xi Jinping.

He canceled his participation without giving a reason, allowing speculation to fill the silence. One explanation might be events closer to home. China expert Abigaël Vasselier thinks it is plausible that Xi may have canceled his G20 participation for domestic political reasons.

The head of the team for China's foreign policy at the Berlin-based China think tank Merics points to reports about the traditional summer meeting of influential party members in the seaside resort of Beidaihe, where Xi Jinping has had to face sharp criticism from powerful old cadres about the political, economic and social conditions in the country.

"Probably the domestic reasons pushing him to stay in China are the most important reason," she said.

India set to host summit of G20 leaders in Delhi

Health issues? 

Other China observers have suggested Xi's health might have played a role. Although Xi attended the recent BRICS conference in South Africa, "the innocent explanation will be that a minor health issue" is keeping him from going to India, Steven Tsang, the director of London's SOAS China Institute, told DW.

Tsang noted that Xi declined to give an address at BRICS. Suffering from even a mild illness could be enough to keep Xi away from the G20 because for Xi, "in this context it has become less important, because he has an alternative international organization that he wants to cultivate and support."

There is also great power competition to consider, seeing that India and China cooperate in some areas but are rivals in others. Both are large Asian economies with huge populations.

"Which country is the biggest potential competitor to China in securing the support of the Global South, and in BRICS to push for an alternative Sino-centric order? India," Tsang said.

Border disputes

India and China have been at odds over the exact position of their 3,500-kilometer-long (2,200-mile-long) border for decades. They went to war in the 1960s, and have had smaller clashes since. Troops on both sides were killed as recently as 2020.

Shortly before Xi's G20 cancelation, China published an official map that showed the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory. India lodged a strong protest.

Yet strained relations are an unlikely cause of Xi's absence from the summit in India, according to Vasselier.

"I think President Xi Jinping can put that aside to go and be part of the G20 club," she said.

India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has played down Xi's decision. He told Indian news agency ANI that cancelations are nothing unusual. US National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan was less forgiving. Asked at a press briefing if tensions between India and China would overshadow the summit, Sullivan said that that was "up to China." 

"If China wants to come in and play the role of spoiler, of course, that option is available to them," he said.

Xi Jinping and Joe Biden at the G20 in Bali last year
Some think it is vitally important that the US president and the Chinese leader meet face to faceImage: Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

BRICS vs G20

Whatever Xi's motivations, Vasselier does not think it is in his interest to weaken the G20 in favor of the BRICS group.

"It's one thing to say 'I want to create alternative structure,'" she said. "It's another thing to say 'I'm actively seeking confrontation by being absent of such an important format.' And I do not think that this is in China's interests, and I do not think that it is completely their intention."

What it does mean, she added, is a missed opportunity for US and Chinese leaders to meet, at a time of heightened tensions and growing mistrust.

Vasselier thinks that it is in the world's interests for Biden and Xi to meet face-to-face — the next opportunity would be at November's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco.

This article was originally written in German.