By Oiwan Lam

While the majority of world leaders attended this year's G20 summit in India (September 9–10, 2023), China’s President Xi Jinping skipped the meeting and instead toured China’s northeast region on a “revitalization plan” — a clear signal about China’s shifting priorities. Instead, China was represented by Premier Li Qiang.

This is the first time Xi has skipped the summit since he became the Chinese President in 2012, and there hasn’t been any official explanation for his absence. This has raised concerns among Western media outlets.

A commentary from the Financial Times interpreted Xi’s move as a “retreat from international diplomacy.” In contrast, another commentary from CNN saw Xi’s no-show as a part of “a plan to reshape global governance.” Some also pointed to domestic woes in China to explain his absence.

As both China and Russia were sidelined thanks to the absence of their top leaders, India, the G20 host, drew all the spotlight as the primary leader of the Global South during the summit.

Downgrading the significance of G20

Within mainland China, the news about the Opening of the G20 summit did not appear on the front page of major state-owned media outlets on September 10.

On the September 10 front page of People’s Daily, for example, all headlines were about Xi Jinping. Gao Falin, a Chinese political news blogger, shared the front page on X (formerly known as Twitter): 

Why was Xi Jinping absent from the G20 Summit? Read the front page of today’s People’s Daily, and you will know how busy he was!

All the news items on the front page mention “Xi Jinping” in the headlines. These headlines were about Xi Jinping’s roundtable on northeast China’s revitalization plan, his political message on the country’s Teacher’s Day, and his diplomatic communications with North Korea on the country’s 75th anniversary and natural disaster condolences to Morocco and Brazil.

On Chinese social media, there were very few discussions about the G20, but several nationalist bloggers did express their views on Xi’s absence. V-shan-shan, a military news blogger with 1.7 million followers, for example, claimed that China had downgraded the significance of G20: 

This year, China has significantly changed its international relations by downgrading the G20. […]China previously considered the G20 summit a vital channel to regulate international economic and political ties. Yet, the role of the G20 summit as the process of globalization in dealing with global economic policy issues has changed.

Against the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the G20 summit has voided economic agendas and turned into a political club of mutual accusations.

Another military blogger shared a similar view on WeChat and claimed that the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, led by Russia and China, will replace G7 and G20 in driving economic globalization. 

India replaces China as the EU and US’s Asian partner

However, the United States and European leaders did not insist on condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the summit. Instead, a MOU was signed among Saudi Arabia, the European Union, India, the UAE, France, Germany, Italy, and the U.S. on the development of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), a project similar to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) development project.

Notably, Itay has announced it will withdraw from the BRI as it has signed agreements with the IMEC plan. Commentator @rakeshkhajuria compared the IMEC and BRI maps on X and pointed to Italy’s role in both projects:

China said it welcomed the IMEC project, provided that it would not turn into a geopolitical tool.

But, on Chinese social media, many slammed the IMEC as a move to isolate China. A commentary by China state-sponsored news outlet Dotdotnews pointed out:

The Indo-European Corridor spans more than 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) across the economies of South Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Undoubtedly, this is the Biden government’s attempt to aggregate Eurasian powers to counteract China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ with their so-called ‘Spice Road,’ which seeks to strengthen military-strategic alliances on the basis of enhanced economic cooperation. The goal is to construct a Cold War Iron Curtain to encircle China.

Another finance and economic news blogger, Gu Zi-ming, also pointed to the IMEC and joint statement between the U.S. and India, as well as the more recent agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam on the development of Vietnam’s semiconductor industry and other advanced technology as a geopolitical means to sideline China’s role in the global production chain.

Apart from strengthening economic ties with the U.S. and Europe, India also won international credit for helping the African Union get a seat at the G20. Local Indian newspapers stressed:

Political scientist Ian Bremmer summed up the summit as a huge success for India:

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Global Voices, a border-less, largely volunteer community of more than 1400 writers, analysts, online media experts, and translators.

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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

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