Given the growing power differentials and China’s global hegemonic ambitions, it is observed that Xi attends mega events where his country has some clout and skips those that could put China in a tight spot and raise questions related to its accountability and responsibility.
A week before the mega event in New Delhi, China’s President Xi Jinping announced that he would not be able to make it to the G20 meeting, the most powerful economic grouping in the world today. China’s foreign ministry stated that instead of Xi, his protégé and number two in the Chinese political hierarchy, Premier Li Qiang, would attend the meeting.
No reasons for Xi’s decision have been made public thus giving rise to speculation about his ill health, severe domestic economic woes, intensification of political factional struggles, dismissal of foreign minister Qin Gang, armed stalemate on the borders with India since the Galwan incident in June 2020 and the release of maps showcasing irredentist claims, spite of India, the debilitating Ukraine conflict, and China’s military adventurism,
Speculation is rife about the health condition of President Xi who has a penchant for conducting mega events and going on foreign jaunts. The pandemic may have dampened these outreach programmes. This year, for instance, Xi visited Moscow in March and Johannesburg last month, skipping the Southeast Asian summit in Jakarta, G20 and others. Xi even skipped the BRICS Business Forum meeting at Johannesburg. China’s opaque system, however, does not permit scrutiny of its political leaders.
Was worsening economy the reason?
A more plausible reason for Xi’s absence at the G20 meeting is traced to the worsening economic woes of China. While China maintained an average economic growth rate of 10 percent during the Deng Xiaoping-Jiang Zemin-Hu Jintao era, it has come down to 3.3 percent last year. This year, China’s parliament proposed to meet over 5 percent growth rate. However, the PMI indicators – measuring factory output – are low in the first two quarters of this year.
The pandemic that originated in Wuhan and the policies thereafter, proved to be disastrous. Real estate – which consumed nearly 11 percent of the nation’s economic output – is in a state of disarray, affecting hundreds of millions of savings.
As pointed out by the Japanese newspaper Nikkei, economic mismanagement led to the intensification of intra-party factional struggles. Previously, Xi decimated the rival factions in the Communist Party - notably the Communist Youth League - at the last year’s 20th party congress, thus disturbing the delicate political balance in the party. It was reported that the party “elders” criticised Xi at the Beidaihe meeting or "summer summit" held annually in Hebei province.
Party intrigues and factionalism
While personal scandals surrounding dismissed foreign minister Qin Gang, allegedly with media personality Fu Xiaotian, that is said to be responsible for his dismissal from office, political factional struggles are also among the main reasons in this episode given Qin’s proximity to Xi. More such political dismissals could be expected in China.
In fact, a number of high-level party cadres are under “investigation” recently – a euphemism for corruption or other scandals. Religious affairs head Cui Maohu was sacked for taking bribes. Admiral Chen Dongfang, the head of the military court was dismissed. Current defence minister Gen Li Shangfu is also said to be under “investigation”.
Tense bilateral ties with India
Xi’s absence from the Delhi G20 meet is also being traced to the “abnormal” bilateral relations with India since the Chinese military marched into Aksai Chin-Ladakh area in late 2019 disregarding the three-decade confidence-building measures between the two countries. China’s military forays also resulted in the killing of 20 Indian soldiers on June 15, 2020 that marred bilateral relations. Despite the promise in February 2021 by the two defence ministries for “disengagement and de-escalation” in “all friction points” across this border, and despite 19 Corps Commanders-level meetings, the issue is still not resolved. China’s Ministry of Natural Resources releasing a few days ago a modified map and renaming of place names in the eastern and western sectors of the border further vitiated the atmosphere.
While the G20 is a multilateral initiative and the Galwan incident is a bilateral issue, the atmospherics between the two countries remains tense. The Galwan incident influenced the perception of both countries – spilling over into negative perceptions carried forward at multilateral fora like the BRICS and G20.
Tensions in bilateral relations have spilled over into the multilateral domain and it is suggested that Xi skipped the G20 meeting to belittle India. Such tendencies indeed are noticeable recently in Chinese diplomatic engagements. For instance, former foreign minister Yang Jiechi tried to shut down the Southeast Asian countries by saying that they are “small” and China is “big” – exhibiting muscle-flexing tendencies. President Xi himself chided Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Bali summit meeting of the G20 last year.
Questions about Beijing's conduct
If the Delhi G20 meeting is seen as a coming out party for India’s rise in the international system, then China, the second largest economy in the world and staking claims for Asian and global leadership, needs to act. While the joint statements between India and China mentioned support to the “simultaneous rise” of these two countries, that remains elusive. China began investing in “failing States” rather than in a rising India with geopolitical considerations overweighing lucrative geo-economic prospects.
Given the growing power differentials and China’s global hegemonic ambitions, it is observed that Xi attends mega events where his country has some clout and skips those that could put China in a tight spot and raise questions related to its accountability and responsibility. Selective appearances could enhance the aura of an emerging “Middle Kingdom,” or so the Chinese leaders think.
The ongoing Ukraine conflict is another reason for Xi skipping the G20 meeting at Delhi. The previous Bali summit proved to be the battle ground for major-power rivalry and it spilled over into the various G20 pre-summit meetings held in India in the last one year. When President Putin was not present at the Delhi G20, Xi’s presence could have attracted criticism regarding “limitless partnership” with Russia. China was isolated internationally in the 1950s and 1960s and Xi’s Delhi G20 appearance held out such prospects.
(The author is a China expert and Dean of the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University., New Delhi. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)