Absence of Xi Jinping and Putin in the G20 Summit, 2023: Does It Have Any Impact?

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The 18th G20 Summit is being held in New Delhi, with almost 30 heads of state and leaders of global organizations marking their presence, as India plays the host. However, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have confirmed to be avoiding the annual gathering of the world’s biggest economies. The Group of Twenty (G20) comprises of 19 biggest economies and the European Union that represent around 85% of the global GDP, over 75% of the global trade, and more than two-thirds of the world population. Absence of two of the global politics heavyweights from the mega event is widely seen as a setback for Narendra Modi’s India and analysts speculate various ramifications of this absence, spiraling the decisions with current geo-political complexities.

Putin and Xi Skipping the G20 Summit

The Kremlin confirmed, in the weeks leading up to the mega event, that Putin would be unable to attend the G-20 meeting as he is busy overseeing Russia’s conflict in Ukraine. Putin personally contacted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to inform him of his absence and clarified that Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, would be taking his place at the summit. Since they launched a “special military operation” against Ukraine, which turned into a full-fledged conflict for over a year now, Russia and Vladimir Putin have had a major beef with the western bloc, which has resulted in a number of severe sanctions and counter-sanctions on both sides. Along with drawing the wrath of western nations, condemnations from most nations and the International Criminal Court (ICC) issuing arrest warrant against him for his alleged war crimes in Ukraine, he is in an uneasy position. He also had to skip the recently concluded BRICS summit and seemingly is now in self-isolation.

On the other hand, just days before the summit the Chinese foreign ministry announced in a press note that Chinese President Xi Jinping would not attend the summit, without citing any specific reason. The press release also informs that Chinese Premier Li Qiang will represent China at the G20 summit in place of President Xi. Since taking office in 2012, Xi Jinping has never skipped the G20 summit. This will also be the first occasion since the inaugural leaders’ conference in 2008 that a Chinese president has missed the summit.

Why Is the Absence?

It remains unclear as to why Xi is not attending the G20 summit whereas the Chinese president has attended the recently concluded BRICS summit and even had a meeting with PM Modi on side-lines. Xi’s announcement of absence comes at a time when tensions remain high between India and China over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India mobilizing troops on the LAC to conduct exercises. In Ladakh’s Galwan valley, in 2020, both the military confronted, resulting in a bloodshed on both the parties. Since then, they have failed to reach an agreement over the disengagement of troops at key friction points. However, just a week before the scheduled summit, on 28th August, China officially released a standard map of the PRC showing India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, the Doklam Plateau, and Aksai Chin included within Chinese borders. This has triggered uproar in India and things were expected to be discussed in the upcoming sideline meeting of the summit.

Thus, the Chinese president’s absence could potentially aggravate tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Experts predict Xi may be “snubbing” the G20 summit because of Beijing’s unwillingness to thaw the relations with India and he is not interested in attending an event that could bolster the global profile of his rival. Experts also argue that China taking new beef in the relation is a direct consequence of its disagreement with India at the BRICS summit, where former wanted to enhance membership as much as possible, with the intention of establishing the bloc as an anti-west club, and the latter opposed the proposition. Some experts claim that to fulfill China’s strive for global power, Xi wants to strengthen China in forums where Beijing can set the agenda, such as the BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Prior to the G20 summit, Putin skipped the BRICS summit in Johannesburg following an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov will represent Russia in New Delhi. While India is not a signatory of the ‘Rome Statute’– the core treaty of ICC, it takes a lot of heat off from India, since it is an advocate of global human rights and an ally of the western world. It is obvious that like all other western backed platforms, the Ukraine war will again be a hot topic at the G-20 summit and Putin’s absence will take much of the focus and heat off India, to make the summit a successful one. Although PM Modi and his diplomats will have to exercise great caution to broker unitarity in the summit.

What It Means for Global Politics

The success of the G20 Summit is PM Narendra Modi’s tool to showcase India’s projected geopolitical clout, prowess of its growing economy and use it ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha Elections. The absence of Xi and Putin is a big blow in maintaining the relevance of the summit as the pressing issues lose their attention and ministerial level meeting ahead of the summit have been contentious. Russia and China together opposed joint statements which included paragraphs condemning Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine last year. Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar, however, downplayed Russia’s absence impact and beef with China claim as Xi is also skipping the ASEAN and East Asia summits in Jakarta next week.

The summit in India had also been viewed as a venue for a possible meeting between Xi and Biden, which the world anxiously anticipated, that possibility is also nibbed off. However, the absence of Xi and Putin is also a stage for India and Western world to provide the G-20 agenda proper focus as the Chinese and Russian president’s presence could have led to an acrimonious debate or have created a tense situation of heated exchange between the leaders, which would deal irreparable damage to the G20 and split the group. However, the absence of two key adversaries provides the perfect opportunity for Biden and Western leaders to make fresh inroads with countries that China and Russia have previously courted. It gives them a free ground to take an opening move to re-establish the west and the US as the polestar of the international system especially towards the countries like Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia even the host India — that are eager for closer ties with China and have declined to take sides after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It raises two questions about the relevance of G-20 platform as a whole. Xi’s absence could be a signal of his narrative of ‘the East is rising, and the West is falling’ as well as showing solidarity with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moreover, with inclusion of rising and regionally influential countries like Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – into the BRICS forum, giving Beijing and Moscow an important alternative to the G-20. In addition, there is also growing concern in global politics as Russian and Chinese leaders would not visit New Delhi but in the next month Putin would meet North Korean leader Kim Jung Un and visit China to meet Xi, that could possibly alter the course of Ukraine War, as Russia is seeking support, both diplomatic and military, from its allies.

The summit is being held in the context of a “very turbulent” global environment, with expectations to find solutions to some of the world’s pressing problems. However, the absence of Putin and Xi along with the divisions within the forum may compromise the effectiveness of decisions made in the Summit. It may deprive the world of having a true spirit of multilateralism as India rightly upholds the slogan of the 18th G20 Summit – One Earth, One Family, and One Future.

– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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