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Xi planning to skip G-20 summit while China-India tensions mount

President of China Xi Jinping (top right) walks past Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second right) during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on Aug. 24, 2023.    (Marco Longari/Pool/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
Bloomberg News

Chinese President Xi Jinping is planning to skip next week’s Group of 20 summit in New Delhi, according to officials familiar with preparations for the meeting, a snub that’s likely to aggravate strains with India.

Tensions between China and India — the world’s two most populous countries — already threaten to prevent G-20 leaders from issuing a joint communique for the first time since the forum was created in 1999, according to separate people familiar with the situation. Xi’s non-attendance would be a further blow for the host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Xi is not intending to travel to the Indian capital for the summit, diplomats from several countries involved in the planning said. Chinese Premier Li Qiang will attend in his place, according to one of the people, while a second said it would be another yet-to-be-named government official. All asked not to be named discussing internal deliberations.

As of earlier Thursday, Indian officials said they were still preparing as if Xi would attend in terms of security protocols and other formalities, even although it remained unclear if he would show up. Xi had yet to confirm to the government whether he’d attend, they added. Reuters first reported that the Chinese leader was likely to skip the meeting.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said he had “nothing to offer at the moment” when asked at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Thursday if Xi or Li would attend the G-20. India’s Ministry of External Affairs declined to comment.

His absence would mark the first time Xi has skipped a G-20 summit since taking power, raising more questions about China’s global clout as its economy slows, but also drawing contrasts with his attendance last week at the BRICS summit in South Africa, where he met with Modi.

Despite their brief encounter then, there are signs of bilateral tensions. In the run-up to the G-20 summit, China has blocked draft proposals on language regarding emerging-market debt and condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine, according to the people familiar with the situation. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has no plans to attend the G-20 for the second year running.

One of the people said China has been particularly belligerent in opposing Modi’s theme for the conference being written in Sanskrit, an ancient language associated with Hinduism.

India and China remain at loggerheads over flashpoints including a border dispute in the Himalayas, while India is a prime beneficiary of efforts by western companies including Apple Inc. to diversify its Chinese operations.

In addition to strains between China and India, the people said, differences are also emerging between the U.S.-aligned Group of Seven nations and the wider G-20 over a new commitment of funding for developing countries to meet United Nations-backed targets on everything from hunger and education to clean energy and climate change.

A draft version of a G-20 communique circulated before the summit called for an extra $500 billion of financing for countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, according to people familiar with its contents. However, G-7 nations were unlikely to agree to that demand, the people said, potentially fueling a narrative of a deeper split between some of the world’s wealthiest countries and emerging markets.

Modi faces perhaps his biggest diplomatic test yet in seeking to smooth over the divisions on a range of issues. Whereas host Indonesia managed an 11th-hour compromise last year on the language over Russia’s war, India will likely face a trickier time due to the heightened tensions with China and Modi’s push to move closer into the orbit of the U.S. and its allies.

The U.S. has made concerted efforts to woo India, with President Joe Biden hosting Modi at the White House in June, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed the potential of US-Indian cooperation as “boundless.”

In addition to military tensions along their border, China and India are both vying to be the leader of the so-called Global South, which has emerged as a key swing vote as divisions grow starker over global rules espoused by the U.S. and its allies on one hand, and the world view of China and Russia on the other.

Disagreements are typically rife ahead of G-20 summits, and there’s still time for a compromise on a concluding statement. The agreement last year in Bali, Indonesia, came together even after other ministerial meetings in the summit’s lead-up failed.