A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson announced in Beijing on Monday that President Xi would not attend the G20 Summit in New Delhi this week and the Chinese delegation will be led by Li Qiang. In its capacity as current president of G20, India is hosting the annual summit of the influential grouping in New Delhi on September 9 and 10.
Indian leaders have downplayed Xi’s absence from the Summit. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Monday said the focus should be on the position taken by countries on key burning issues than on the levels of representations at the conclave. “At the end of the day, countries are represented by whoever they have chosen to represent them. The levels of representation do not become the final determinant of the position of a country,” Jaishankar said. Minister of State for External Affairs Meenakshi Lekhi said Xi’s absence would not have any impact on the Summit’s outcome. A declaration that will be issued at the end of the Summit is mostly prepared, and it is the countries’ prerogative who they want to send, she said.
After Xi’s appearance at the BRICS Summit in South Africa, his absence at the G20 Summit will stick out even more. Undercutting Prime Minister Narendra
Modi’s big moment so soon afterward would lay bare the limits of G20’s ability to speak with a unified voice, or serve as a credible alternative to US-led groupings, according to news agency Bloomberg.
Tensions between China and India threaten to prevent G20 leaders from issuing a joint communique for the first time since the forum was created in 1999. “Xi’s absence may be Beijing’s attempt to put a nail in the G20’s coffin, only weeks after expanding the BRICS organization which is more aligned with China’s world view,” David Boling, director at consulting firm Eurasia Group, told Reuters recently.
Failing to forge a consensus will hurt the diplomatic credentials of Prime Minister Modi, who is using India’s G20 presidency to bolster the country’s position as an economic powerhouse and a leader of the global south. “If the leaders’ summit is a flop, New Delhi and especially Modi will have suffered a major diplomatic, and political, setback,” Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, told Reuters.
India, which has not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will have to either convince the bloc to agree to a joint statement – the so-called Leaders Declaration – or allow its presidency to be the first to end without such a communique since 2008.
In Bali, Indonesian President Joko Widodo clinched a last-minute joint statement from the bloc. India is hoping that the leaders can again work something out at the last minute, a government official told Reuters. In its G20 presidency, India has sought to relegate the differences over Ukraine to the background and pushed for resolution on climate change, debt for vulnerable countries, rules around cryptocurrencies and multilateral bank reforms.
China’s obstructive behaviour
China has shown obstructive behaviour so far during the G20 meetings. It is the only G20 member state that opposed several Indian G20 initiatives in the past year. Beijing took a divergent view on almost all issues at G20 meetings in the run-up to the summit under India’s presidency. Beijing remains intransigent in addressing irritants along the Line of Actual Control in the Ladakh sector.
China had voiced its opposition to the inclusion of the Sanskrit phrase ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ in documents of the G20 energy ministerial meeting and other G20 documents. Beijing has also objected to matters such as Mission LiFE (lifestyle for environment), women-led development, and MSMEs. China reportedly obstructed discussions on tackling climate change at G20 meetings and did not participate at the tourism meet held in Srinagar. A foreign policy observer told ET that China’s obstructionist behaviour signalled that Beijing has reservations against India’s leadership of the Global South.
A test for Modi
China’s obstructive stance is not the only challenge for PM Modi who is positioning himself as a global leader as India hosts the G20 Summit.
Differences are also emerging between the US-aligned Group of Seven nations and the wider G20 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, Bloomberg has reported. A draft version of a G20 communique circulated before the summit called for an extra $500 billion of financing for countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. However, G-7 nations are unlikely to agree to that demand,
Modi’s challenge lies in creating a consensus over several different issues which now appears elusive, especially with Xi choosing to skip the Summit. Differences among G20 members over joint declaration are not uncommon. Last year at Bali, host Indonesia managed to create a consensus over the joint declaration at the last minute. The sticking point was the language over the Ukraine war. However, this time there are several issues with deep disagreements. Since the joint declaration is often a last-minute affair involving a lot of hard bargaining, India still has time to create a consensus. But the question is: Will China allow India its moment of global leadership when the chill between the two countries is only growing and India is trying to emerge as an economic alternative to China?