How Xi’s non-presence at New Delhi G20 summit will save blushes for both India and China First Post 07 Sep 2023 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


How Xi’s non-presence at New Delhi G20 summit will save blushes for both India and China First Post 07 Sep 2023

          It is now official. Xi Jinping, the Chinese President will not be attending the G20 summit. Fareed Zakaria, a veteran journalist and geopolitical expert, stated in an interview that Xi Jinping missing the summit implies that China is ‘deliberately not trying to resolve the border issue’ with India. He added, ‘This (G2O Summit) is a big deal for Prime Minister Modi personally, and for XI to snub him that way is a very powerful thing.’ The world mistakenly believes that Xi’s primary reason for missing the summit is that China seeks to lower Indian success of its presidency. India is possibly the only country which, during its leadership, compelled the G20 to devote attention to concerns of the global south.

          The Chinese spokesperson, sidestepped questions on reasons why their President is absenting himself, by stating, ‘The Group of 20 is a major forum for international economic cooperation, and China has always attached great importance to and actively participated in relevant activities.’ He added that Xi Jinping will be represented by the Chinese premier, Li Qiang. China had earlier skipped G20 preliminary meetings in Arunachal, Kashmir and Leh, as also raised concerns on these locations, which were ignored.

Some assume that the Chinese President is preoccupied with the Chinese economy moving downhill as companies face unprecedented losses or closures resulting in increased unemployment, enhancing anger and resentment amongst the younger population. There is also a thought that he has health issues, based on his unsteady walk during the recently concluded BRICS summit in Johannesburg.

With Indo-China relations moving downhill, India is displaying its anti-China stance aggressively, something China dislikes. Delhi sent its three former service chiefs to attend the Ketagalan Forum’s 2023 Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue in Taiwan. The three even posted an image of their presence on multiple social media platforms. Admiral Karambir also participated in a panel discussion.  The Chinese foreign ministry protested with its spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, mentioning that China firmly opposes all forms of official interaction with Taiwan.  

Subsequently, General Naravane, the former army chief, shared the dais with Geshe Lobsang, representative of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, and Umit Hamit, a noted Uyghur freedom fighter at the 6th International Rangzen (Independence) Conference in New Delhi. In his address General Naravane stated, ‘It was Tibet which was our rightful neighbour and not China. With the forceful occupation of Tibet, their rights have been suppressed.’ Both these events would have had the blessing of the government.

These sent a message to China that India can re-alter its one-China policy as also is unwilling to respect Beijing’s sentiments and redlines. India also officially backed the Philippines in its recent standoff with the Chinese coastguard in the South China Sea, an act it rarely does. These occurring close to the G20 summit displayed that India does not consider its ties with China as ‘normal,’ something Beijing would have noted.  

Few have considered Xi Jinping missing the summit from Beijing’s point of view. The G20 summit is in New Delhi and Indo-China relations have slid further down post the tete-a-tete on the sidelines of the BRICS summit between Indian PM Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. Both nations gave their own versions of the discussion, with India indicating positivity in resolving the LAC standoff, hinting at a possible Xi-Modi summit in Delhi. The Chinese changed their statement a day later, re-insisting that border and diplomatic ties should not be linked, pushing away any hopes of a bilateral. Talks at the military and diplomatic level to resolve the standoff have not made much headway.

Xi, who expects to be treated as royalty wherever he visits, considering the clout of China and his position as its emperor, may be disappointed in New Delhi. PM Modi would have accorded all due protocol on reception and departure as per global norms. However, with bonhomie lacking there would be distance maintained by the host. A mandated bilateral or even a pull-aside is unlikely, making Xi feel unwelcome. This would be unacceptable to Beijing.

China realizes that this is an election year in India and all political parties would be closely watching how Modi would handle Xi. Any display of familiarity or proximity would be exploited by the opposition, and this is not something Modi would risk. He would prefer keeping a distance rather than be subjected to a barrage of accusations from the opposition. For Xi, it would be easier skipping the summit without assigning a reason, allowing speculations to run wild, with many believing that his absence is an insult to India, rather than attend and be ignored.

With Russia and China against any mention of Ukraine, the statement is likely to be watered down. Indian proposals on including its thoughts and vision of the organization would face resistance only from China. Common issues including the inclusion of the African Union may be acceptable. The joint statement is being discussed in the final Sherpa’s meeting currently under progress and would not be impacted by the absence of Xi.

The Chinese premier, Li Qiang, would read out the message which Xi was to have done. His being ignored in Delhi is acceptable to Beijing as he remains only a mouthpiece for the Chinese president with largely a ceremonial role.   

Russian President Putin spoke to PM Modi and conveyed reasons for his absence. This displayed proximity of ties. Xi cannot resort to the same as Indo-China ties are in the dumps and a conversation would result in divulging true reasons for missing the event.

India has rejected the hybrid format which includes online presence mainly to ignore the request of Ukrainian President, Zelensky, to address the summit. Hence, leaders will not have the option of speaking online. The Indian government also cannot comment on why heads of state are not attending. It is their spokespersons who justify. Thus, Jaishankar stated, ‘I would say rather than focus necessarily on which country chose to come at what level, the real issue is what position they take when they come.’

For India, Xi or no Xi, the summit will showcase efforts put forth by the country during the past year in making the G20 into an organization accountable to the world. At the end of the day, the non-presence of the Chinese leader will save blushes for himself and the Indian PM, as both would feel awkward in each other’s presence as also would hesitate to exchange even a few words as these could be twisted or misconstrued.