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The conspicuous absence of Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the 2023 G20 Summit in New Delhi spotlights evolving priorities and preconditions driving China's foreign policy agenda under his leadership. Xi has attended every G20 gathering since assuming power a decade ago, making his skipping of this year's event a stark departure that raises questions about China's participation in global governance and multilateral diplomacy.
Analysts note Xi forgoing the summit contradicts his frequent declarations that China deserves a greater leadership role in international affairs befitting its size and strength. The G20 arena offers high-profile opportunities to directly shape global agenda-setting and engage fellow leaders to promote China's interests and perspectives. By avoiding the forum, Xi passes up a chance to assert China's voice at the most influential multilateral table.
His absence also disrupts relationship-building, foregoing informal interactions with counterparts that ease bilateral tensions and strengthen ties. Some observers suggest Xi only travels to nations with positive relations with China, judging from his selective overseas trips this year to "friendly" Russia and South Africa. Lingering border disputes likely impeded any Xi visit to G20 host India.
More broadly, Xi's foreign policy attention appears redirected toward the developing world, especially emerging economies. He has enthusiastically participated in gatherings like the BRICS Summit with fellow powers Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa while bolstering outreach to Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
This developing country focus suggests Xi now sees Western-dominated forums like the G20 as unworthy of his personal investment. He opts to dispatch subordinates instead, while concentrating his own diplomatic energy on Global South relationships seemingly more aligned with Chinese interests.
Selective Engagement as Coercion
Some posit Xi uses selective engagement at multilateral gatherings to coerce policy changes from other participants, especially Western democracies. By withholding top-level attendance, he potentially pressures nations to accommodate China's interests as a precondition for high-level bilateral relations.
For example, if Xi attends November's APEC summit in the U.S., it may signal Washington has sufficiently smoothed disputes from Beijing's perspective. However, perceived U.S. efforts to counter China through alliances, along with enhanced military support for Taiwan, have sharply escalated tensions.
Xi also protested the alleged U.S. ban on Hong Kong leader John Lee attending APEC. His own APEC participation could hinge on reversing stances Beijing sees as unfriendly toward core Chinese interests. Withholding engagement serves to compel external behavioral shifts.
But this risky approach also isolates China from key global conversations. Xi loses chances to personally influence collective outcomes and improve understanding of Chinese thinking. Instead, the onus falls entirely on other nations to appease Beijing's concerns in order to secure its cooperation and participation.
Moreover, China's absence from multilateral forums undermines its declared role as a responsible global stakeholder committed to shared prosperity. Xi missing major meetings risks perceptions of China growing disconnected from pressing international issues.
While selectively engaging only friendly nations, Xi also passes up opportunities to improve relations with skeptical states through high-level dialogue. But complex global challenges like climate change inherently require China's active diplomatic involvement. Xi's non-attendance does not reflect the constructive leadership expected of an aspiring world power.
In summary, Xi's G20 absence reveals complex trade-offs in China's foreign policy calculus under his guidance. It highlights the shifting focus toward the developing world and emerging economies more aligned with Beijing's interests. But it also signifies China's growing alienation from Western-led diplomatic forums and unwillingness to engage rivals and skeptics.
Xi risks reducing China's voice in global governance while also forcing the world to meet Beijing's demands as a condition for its cooperation. The onus falls on others to appease China rather than vice versa. Xi's diplomatic selectivity and conditionality carries significant risks and limitations for China's aspirations as a global leader.
Broader Foreign Policy Trends Under Xi
Beyond the G20 no-show, Xi's general foreign policy record reveals other key strategic themes and priorities at play:
- Consolidating power – Xi has centralized foreign policy control more than recent predecessors. He dominates planning through new "leading small groups" and reduced the foreign ministry's influence.
- Flexing new muscle – Under Xi, China has shown increased willingness to exert economic, military and diplomatic coercion to advance national interests. But this assertive "Wolf Warrior" approach has provoked regional backlash.
- Stressing sovereignty – China has taken uncompromising stances against perceived violations of its sovereignty, whether regarding Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang or the South China Sea. This reflects Xi's intense nationalism.
- Prioritizing development – Xi touts China's developing world identity and partnerships through programs like the Belt and Road Initiative. South-South cooperation is a pillar of China's foreign affairs.
- Countering constraints – Xi aims to resist and reshape US-led alliances, partnerships and institutions constraining China's power. He strives for greater Chinese influence in global governance.
- Managing ties – Despite tensions, Xi seeks stable great power relations with Washington and Moscow. China also pursues improved peripheral diplomacy with neighboring states to preempt containment.
These principles drive Xi's foreign policy strategy of securing an enhanced leadership position for China while demanding deference from other nations regarding its core interests and sovereignty claims. But the G20 absence suggests difficulty reconciling this agenda with constructive, win-win multilateral engagement.
Implications of Xi's G20 Absence
Despite its rise, China remains enmeshed in the US-led global order it did not create but has benefited from. Xi's pugnacious diplomacy strains relationships with fellow stakeholders while ironically undercutting China's integration and leadership in multilateral institutions.
Avoiding Western forums like the G20 also gives rival ideologies and agendas freer rein in shaping global norms, governance and discourse on China. Relying on subordinates without Xi's commanding presence also weakens China's influence in key discussions.
Moreover, Xi's disengagement and coercion tactics could backfire. Rebuffing G20 participation dampens cooperation momentum when the world faces daunting transnational challenges requiring joint action. Other nations may refuse to yield to Beijing's demands or decide to bypass China's obstinacy.
Instead of accommodating China, democracies like the U.S., EU and Japan have strengthened security cooperation and accelerated efforts to restructure global supply chains and reduce risky dependencies. Beijing has responded furiously, but Xi's unbending foreign policy risks counterproductive consequences that undermine, not advance, China's interests.
In reality, Beijing has limited ability to withdraw from or parallel multilateralism given its interdependence with existing institutions and partnerships. Selective engagement fails to shield China from global dynamics and risks marginalizing its influence. Xi's conditional approach may sometimes extract modest concessions but also alienates and invites unwelcome countermeasures.
With crafty diplomacy, China could steer the current order toward greater pluralism and feed its national priorities into the system. But Xi has chosen confrontation over calibration, gambling that coercion and disengagement will strengthen China's hand.
As with his G20 absence, Xi's general foreign strategy reveals a combustible mix of confidence and defensiveness, pragmatism and nationalism. A wise power recognizes multilateralism's indispensable value proposition and embraces leadership within cooperative structures, not withdrawal toward antagonistic unilateralism. Xi's record casts doubt on whether he grasps this reality.
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