Chinese President Xi Jinping will not attend the G-20 Summit in India this weekend, marking the first time Xi has missed the event since taking office in 2013 (although he did attend the 2021 version virtually, due to China’s pandemic restrictions).
So far this year, Xi has only traveled abroad twice – to Russia in March to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to South Africa in August to attend the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg. It is clear that maintaining good relations with developing nations remains the priority of Chinese foreign policy today. And facing a hostile U.S.-led West, it seems imperative for China to keep close ties with Russia.
A few factors could have contributed to Xi’s decision to skip the G-20 Summit, hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi: ongoing tensions between China and India over their disputed border may have made Xi doubt the warmth of his welcome in Delhi; he may wish to avoid embarrassing questions about a controversial new Chinese map or the troubled Chinese economy; or he may not want to be around a group of unfriendly foreign leaders, especially in the absence of Putin, meaning Xi would have to deal with Western leaders alone.
But the most probable reason is the Chinese belief that Washington has not shown sufficient sincerity for a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden during the G-20 summit. Biden and Xi famously had their first in-person meeting on the sidelines of the last G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. All recent exchanges between Chinese and U.S. officials have pointedly referenced the “important common understandings” reached during the Bali meeting.
Yet the Biden administration has continued to rally support from allies and friends to counter China despite its repeated claim that the United States is not seeking confrontation with China. The recent Japan-South Korea-U.S. summit at Camp David, joint military exercises between the United States and its allies in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea, the U.S. military’s proposed new port in the Philippines facing Taiwan, and Biden’s visit to Vietnam after the G-20 summit are some of the latest evidence, in Beijing’s view, of U.S. efforts to encircle China.
Beijing is most alarmed by Washington’s recent stepped-up military aid and support for Taiwan, including the Biden administration’s approval in August of a military transfer to Taiwan under the Foreign Military Financing program normally used for sovereign states. In July, the Biden administration sent Taiwan a $345 million package of weapons drawn from U.S. stockpiles, marking the first time the United States sent equipment to Taiwan using the presidential drawdown authority. Congress authorized about $1 billion for presidential drawdown packages for Taiwan in the annual defense bill for the 2023 fiscal year.
Washington has drastically beefed up Taiwan’s military preparedness in recent years without doing much to promote dialogue across the Taiwan Strait. As it arms Taiwan, the United States continues to claim that its “One China” policy remains unchanged. There is no mutual trust between Beijing and Washington, despite their intentions to prevent the relationship from further deteriorating.
It is interesting to note that while Xi seems to be shunning Western leaders outside China, Western officials and leaders are flocking to China nowadays. Since June this year, four senior officials from the Biden administration have visited China – Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, Climate Change Envoy John Kerry, and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. In the past week or so, Canada’s Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani visited Beijing. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, among others, are believed to be planning their trips to China later this year.
Xi’s absence from the G-20 summit is a lost opportunity for China to improve relations with the West and to work with others to address common challenges, from the World Bank reform to climate change. The Chinese government has every reason to be unhappy with the “lack of sincerity” on the part of the Biden administration. However, exactly because of difficult problems between China and the United States and its allies, face-to-face dialogues are needed so that leaders can address these problems candidly and constructively.
Now that Xi has skipped the G-20 Summit, will he go to San Francisco for the APEC Summit in November? Xi so far has a perfect record of attending APEC gatherings, including the two virtual summits in 2020 and 2021. Will he break that streak rather than travel to the United States?
At this point, it is uncertain. Much depends on what happens in the next few months and whether the United States and China can rebuild some trust. If both sides continue their current approaches and do not work to create a conducive atmosphere, it is likely that Xi may skip the APEC Summit as well.
Biden, who was disappointed at Xi’s absence from the G-20 Summit, can help make Xi’s decision easier if he truly wants the Chinese leader to attend. Even symbolic gestures from the Biden administration, such as lifting some sanctions against Chinese businesses and individuals and reaffirming the U.S. policy of not supporting Taiwan independence, will help ameliorate the situation and give Xi some incentives to attend the APEC Summit in November.