By Riva Chen
Xi Jinping has never missed a G20 meeting since he took power in 2012. His absence at the 2023 G20 Summit sparked a wide range of speculations and interpretations, from Xi’s potential health issues to a snub at the host country India. But in view of China’s tense relations with the U.S., Xi’s no-show at the G20 could be a signal of his distrust of the Western-dominated international systems.
According to several foreign diplomats in China, getting access to Chinese officials and other sources of information has been more difficult than before since 2023. Under Xi’s strict top-down regime, Chinese officials become more cautious when engaging with the foreign world, and they are less likely to go off script. Xi’s centralization of power means the entire political system becomes more reliant on his direct leadership on a wide range of policy issues, and it becomes less effective in his absence. Even though the premier Li Qiang attended the summit instead, it wasn’t clear what Li was empowered to do.
Relations between China and the West have been unstable in recent years over issues ranging from China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the interactions between the West and Taiwan. With about half the G20’s members being the US allies where the Biden administration could take a tougher stance in countering China, Xi’s no-show at the G20 could be explained by Xi’s disillusion with the existing global system of governance which he sees as too dominated by the US and hostile to China.
During the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg last August, it was announced that Argentina, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates would become full members of the bloc in 2024. The expansion, the first since South Africa joined in 2010 at the invitation of China and hailed as “historic” by Xi, was a major victory for China to ally with the developing countries in developing a post-western global system of governance to counterbalance the West. Therefore, Xi’s absence at the G20 indicates that he may prioritize the multilateral forums that fit into China’s own vision of how the world should be governed, such as the BRCIS summit or the Belt and Road Forum. Hence, China, who portrays itself as the “regional responsible power”, can create an alternative system with minimal influence from the West.
The tense relationships between China and India also shed some light on Xi’s absence. The two Asian neighbors are facing off against each other due to their frequent border disputes and economic nationalism. In September, a Chinese think tank commented that India was trying to take advantage of its role as the host of the G20 Summit to promote India’s own agenda and harm Chinese interests. The G20 Summit serves as an acceleration in the contest between China and India as the dominant regional power in Asia. China has bristled with the growing ties between the US and India, especially the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (commonly known as the Quad).
Multilateral cooperation was once the keystone of China-India relations. However, India has been highlighting its differences with China on regional and global governance in recent years, alienating China from the Global South. While China expects the developing world to support China’s anti-America agenda, India is offering an alternative: enhancing the voice of the developing countries on the global stage while seeking cooperation with the West. During the G20 summit, a memorandum of understanding on the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) was signed by the European Union, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the US and other G20 partners. The announcement of IMEC came a month ahead of the third BRI Forum, showed that India and other Western powers could be a challenge to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiatives as well as its influences in the region.
China’s ideology in foreign diplomacy has undergone tremendous changes since Xi took power in 2012. Xi’s “major country diplomacy” doctrine has replaced the earlier approach of “keeping a low profile” adopted since Deng Xiaoping’s era. More assertive foreign diplomacy has legitimized a more active and assertive role for China on the regional and international stages. The creation of Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) demonstrates Xi’s ambitions to create an alternative global governance led by China to minimize the influence of the West and create a favorable external environment to fulfill China’s national interests. Thus, the change of focus in Chinese foreign diplomacy can be one of the explanations for Xi’s absence at the G20.