By Krishn Kaushik, Laurie Chen and Martin Quin Pollard
NEW DELHI/BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to skip a summit of G20 leaders in India next week, sources familiar with the matter in India and China told Reuters, a development that would dash chances of a meeting there with U.S. President Joe Biden.
Xi’s absence also could be a shot at host India, according to some analysts, who see it as a signal China is reluctant to confer influence on its southern neighbour that boasts one of the fastest growing major economies as China’s slows.
Two Indian officials, one diplomat based in China and one official working for the government of another G20 country said Premier Li Qiang is expected to represent Beijing at the Sept. 9-10 meeting in New Delhi.
Spokespersons for the Indian and Chinese foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment.
Li is also likely to attend a summit of East and Southeast Asian leaders in Jakarta, Indonesia on Sept. 5-7, according to a report from Kyodo.
The summit in India had been viewed as a venue for a possible meeting between Xi and Biden, who has confirmed his attendance, as the two superpowers seek to stabilise relations soured by trade and geopolitical tensions.
Xi last met Biden on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia last November.
“I hope he attends,” Biden told reporters on Thursday in Washington.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already said he will not be travelling to New Delhi and will send Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov instead.
One senior government official from India told Reuters that “we are aware that the premier will come”, in place of Xi.
In China, two foreign diplomats and a government official from another G20 country said Xi will likely not be travelling for the summit.
Two of these three sources in China said they were informed by Chinese officials, but they were not aware of the reason for Xi’s expected absence.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media.
The G20 summit is seen as an important showcase for India, with the country coming off a successful lunar landing and touting itself as a rising power with attractive markets and a source for global supply chain diversification.
But relations between the G20 host and China have been troubled for more than three years after soldiers from both sides clashed in the Himalayan frontier in June 2020, resulting in 24 deaths.
Farwa Aamer, director of South Asia Initiatives at the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) in New York, said Xi skipping the summit could be read as China being “reluctant to cede the centre stage” to India.
“China doesn’t want India to be the voice of the Global South, or to be that country within the Himalayan region to be hosting this very successful G20 summit,” she said.
EYES ON APEC
Anticipation of a meeting between Xi and Biden had been fuelled by a stream of top U.S. officials visiting Beijing in recent months, including Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo earlier this week.
Chinese and U.S. officials, however, have told Reuters they are looking toward November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in San Francisco as the main potential venue for a Xi-Biden meeting this year, and had downplayed expectations for any major talks between the two at the G20.
Still, no meetings or formal attendance plans for APEC have been announced.
Xi has attended all other in-person G20 summits since becoming president in 2013 except in 2021 during the COVID pandemic when he joined by video link. The 2020 G20 meeting hosted by Saudi Arabia was conducted virtually due to the pandemic.
Xi, who secured a precedent-breaking third term as leader last October, has made few overseas trips since China abruptly dropped strict pandemic-induced border controls this year.
While he played a prominent role at a meeting in South Africa last week of leaders of the BRICS group of major emerging economies, the Chinese government gave no reason for his absence at a business forum there.
His scheduled speech was delivered instead by China’s commerce minister.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a rare conversation with Xi on the sidelines of that BRICS summit and highlighted concerns India has about the border dispute between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Several G20 ministerial meetings in India ahead of the summit have been contentious as Russia and China together opposed joint statements which included paragraphs condemning Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine last year.
(Reporting by Krishn Kaushik in New Delhi, Laurie Chen and Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing, and Michael Martina, Trevor Hunnicutt and Andrea Shalal in Washington; Editing by YP Rajesh, John Geddie, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Andrew Heavens)