Sep 8, 2023 - World

Xi's G20 no-show gives Biden and Modi an opening

Photo of Xi Xinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping makes a speech during the 15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa on August 24, 2023. (Photo by BRICS/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Chinese leader Xi Jinping's expected absence from this year's G20 leaders summit in New Delhi will give President Biden — and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — a bigger opening to push their agendas.

The big picture: This will be the first time Xi has missed a G20 summit since he assumed power in late 2012, and comes as he is facing major challenges at home. Chinese Premier Li Qiang will attend in his stead.

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin will also skip the summit, for the second year in a row. Most G20 members condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine at last year's summit.

What we're watching: Biden plans to use the G20 to push for a lending program for developing countries, White House officials said — a move to counter China's massive Belt and Road Initiative, which has seen billions of dollars in infrastructure projects for developing countries over the past decade.

  • And the Biden administration yesterday released the text of a new Indo-Pacific supply chain agreement with a group of 14 countries that does not include China.
  • Revealing the full text of the agreement the week of both the G20 and ASEAN summits highlights the administration's effort to demonstrate the U.S. can still pull together a bloc of countries to achieve multilateral goals.

Details: Modi has presented the summit as evidence of India's growing global leadership, coinciding with India's successful moon landing a few weeks ago. India also recently overtook China to become the most populous country in the world.

  • "For too long, India was seen as a country of one billion hungry stomachs," The Guardian quoted Modi as saying in an interview on Sunday. "Now it is one billion aspirational minds and two billion skilled hands."

The intrigue: Ties between Beijing and Delhi have become heavily strained in recent years. Small but deadly clashes along disputed parts of their shared border in 2020 and 2022 sent relations spiraling.

  • India responded by blocking dozens of Chinese mobile apps, including TikTok, and both countries have booted each other’s journalists.
  • Yes, but: India is a member of both the Quad — an informal grouping that also includes the U.S., Australia, and Japan formed largely to counter Beijing's influence in the Indo-Pacific — and a member of BRICS, which just expanded to include six new countries in a move widely seen as aiming to counter the West.
  • That seeming contradiction is in part because India has long been a leader in the non-alignment movement, and it isn't looking to shake up that aspect of its foreign policy any time soon.

Between the lines: Beijing hasn't given a reason for Xi's absence, but analysts have presented several theories.

  • It could be a snub intended to reduce the prestige and global legitimacy of India's hosting of the annual summit.
  • Xi's presence "would have meant normalizing relations without making any sincere effort to resolve the border crises," Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, told the New York Times.
  • But it could also indicate that Xi is "preoccupied with domestic issues," Brian Hart of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told CNN.

Flashback: Xi's absence comes in stark contrast to his "charm offensive" leading up to last year's G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, where he held relatively upbeat meetings on the sidelines with Biden and the leaders of more than half a dozen other countries.

  • Last year's meeting between Biden and Xi was viewed as a key step in stopping the downward spiral in relations between the U.S. and China.
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