Xi-Putin absence at G20: China must play its cards better
China has no real idea about how to play its India policy. It does not wish to give India too much geopolitical leeway lest the latter becomes a potential competitor.
In international geopolitics, happenings around events, such as the upcoming G20 Summit meeting in New Delhi, rarely proceed based on presumptions. Besides the transparent order of business, the unwritten agenda of the sidelines of such significant events is meant to extract good public relations, project capability of slick organisation and execution, make media headlines and establish reputations of governments, leaders and nations.
However, these occasions can be exploited for many negatives, such as doing down a host nation’s organisational capability and security readiness. For non-state organisations or sponsored entities, disrupting a mega event under international conduct is akin to demonstrating an out-of-proportion capability. The conflict spectrum does not restrict adversary nations to executing only conventional acts of war to communicate and message. The spectrum offers so much more today. There are far smarter ways of doing things without fingers being pointed in any confirmatory way; denial is a part of the spectrum, too. Ways and means of upsetting a carefully charted agenda through the most benign interventions are not impossible in these days of mass communication and disruptive practices.
So, for the upcoming iconic G20 Summit, India awaits a success, which we all hope will place it on an even higher table of international geopolitics. Yet, it has to be ready for potential disruption by diplomatic means or otherwise, which could be used to carry out intervention in the very positive progress made on all fronts through this year under the Indian leadership of G20. The absence of the Russian and Chinese leaders, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, may be seen in this light.
Both are not attending for primarily different reasons but with some similarity of purpose, too. Russia and Ukraine are at war, which is obviously not going well for Russia. Putin perhaps does not wish to leave Moscow at such a juncture, especially after the abortive coup executed by the mercenary leader Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, better known as the Wagner Chief. His recent killing, allegedly by the Russian State itself, does not make it the best of times for Putin to be away; foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is always a suitable relief.
Putin avoided the G20 summit in Bali last year and the recent 15th BRICS summit in South Africa, too. He would have been a disruptive presence at any of these events, although one school of thought considers that his presence may also trigger the search for peace in Ukraine in a more focused and committed way. Putin is clearly under pressure internationally. Although he is doing business with many nations, almost all are unfavourably disposed towards the ongoing war. He can’t be certain about the response to his presence at such a gathering and, therefore, prefers to stay away.
Why is President Xi Jinping not coming? He attended the Bali summit in 2022 and the recent 15th BRICS summit. There are reasons to believe that a Sino-Russian tacit agreement has been conceived to keep away from a meeting where the US and its allies have numerical dominance and where efforts to play the Ukraine card would be rife. The mention of Ukraine, even in meetings on the sidelines, with the presence of Russia and China in New Delhi, would have a negative diplomatic impact on them.
In 2022, the situation in Ukraine was still dynamic. Fatigue has now set in, and expectations from China have increased; Xi Jinping would definitely not like to be drawn into anything over which China does not have full control, and control Xi definitely does not have over this situation. The US stealing the show and getting its narrative to be the dominant one among the almost 30 countries of the world at the G20 Summit, even with Xi’s presence there, is not something palatable for China’s president at this juncture. As it is, enough is going around about the loss of Chinese heft with a downturn in its economy. The long and short of the state of Sino-US relations and the effect on the G20 summit is that there is yet too much unpredictability, as was evident from US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s visit to Beijing last week. Xi isn’t sure how to move forward; the ‘grey zone’ is hitting China more than the intended effect of its strategy against adversaries.
Ukraine and the US apart, the real reason for Xi Jinping’s absence could be the host, India. He has not missed a single ‘in person’ G20 Summit so far. His absence in New Delhi can thus be used to convey as many messages as his presence may have. Firstly, by agreeing to come to New Delhi, Xi would hand over a moral victory to India. He managed to keep the relationship with India frosty after his rather hurried and ‘unthought through’ actions in May 2020, achieving nothing for China.
The world is still witnessing the formation of a new or reformed world order. Xi is unsure about India, where it stands, and the future course. His presence in Delhi could be construed as readiness for peace with India, which he is still unprepared to offer. Border talks between military commanders may be on but are also accompanied by some apparently psychologically coercive actions such as publishing maps with China’s claimed zones and regions marked as being in China. It’s a game China has long played, although its effect is a misperceived success.
For a long time, I have stated that China has no real idea about how to play its India policy. It does not wish to give India too much geopolitical leeway lest the latter becomes a potential competitor.
The real strategic potential of India is being realised under PM Narendra Modi’s leadership, and Xi does not wish to add to the stature of the Indian leader, either. The G20 process under Modi’s leadership has been energetic, innovative and purposeful throughout the year. With that, the Summit would promise a position to India in the sun. Xi Jinping does not want to be a positive factor contributing to that. He perceives that a disruption of any kind will be in China’s interest. It’s a mistake that Xi is making. China should learn to trust and partner with India.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir