On September 9, 2023, there was a rapid-fire exchange on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, that summed up two poles of U.S. foreign policy thinking about China quite succinctly.
"Ditching the G20 summit marks a dramatic turn in China’s foreign policy. For the past several years, Xi has apparently sought to make China an alternative to the West. Now Xi is positioning his country as a full-on opponent," tweeted Michael Schuman, a writer at The Atlantic.
The rebuttal from another American China-watcher, former diplomat Evan Feigenbaum, now with the Carnegie Endowment, was swift and slightly lacerating:
“Does attending ten straight G20 meetings, hosting one, sending your premier this time, and meeting with nine G20 leaders in the last 10 months alone count as “ditching“ it for an “alternate world order? It was dumb to skip, but some of the hyperbole this week seems a bit much.”
The G-20 meet in India was scheduled two weeks after the conclusion of the BRICS Conference in South Africa. India’s Modi, host of this year’s G-20, attended both, as did Brazil’s Lula, host of the next year’s G-20. South Africa’s Ramaphosa, host of the BRICS meet, attended both and Putin, wary about international travel due to charges that make him liable to arrest, attended neither.
China’s differential attention to the two back-to-back meetings highlights both achievements and shortcomings of Chinese foreign policy. The BRICS conference in Johannesburg was arguably a diplomatic win for Beijing, for the Xi-centric protocol not-so-subtly established China’s claim as the first among equals among the economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa. The invitation to expand BRICS membership was also a diplomatic win for Beijing, since New Delhi expressed reservations about expansion but ultimately yielded on it.
Then came the G-20 Summit at which China’s leader didn’t show. There are various theories about Xi’s absence, but when it comes to the reading of tea leaves, even veteran China watchers often disagree, which is a way of saying they don’t really know.
There’s certainly room for questions to be raised. How does Xi Jinping go from being the star of the show in Johannesburg to yielding the stage to China challengers such as Biden, Modi, Meloni, Sunak, Kishida, Yoon and others in New Delhi?
Perhaps the question contains a seed of an answer; Xi could not hope to dominate proceedings in India as he did in South Africa. Not only did the G-20 pose the challenge of having almost four times as many fellow leaders to contend with, befriend and influence, but the inherent advantage Modi enjoyed as host (let alone the big footprint of the American presidential entourage) would likely relegate China’s proud leader to the sidelines.
There are other ways to read the no-show, of course, with everything from the need to attend to pressing domestic matters, to conference fatigue, concerns about security, protocol disputes, etc.
If there’s merit to the argument made by Michael Schuman, that Xi deliberately snubbed the G-20 because he is keen on remaking the world order, it follows that Chinese foreign policy needs to create an alternate order, membership in which the U.S. need not apply.
As Feigenbaum points out, China’s foreign policy is certainly robust, scoring recent meetings with at least nine G-20 countries, so if one is to criticize Xi for not attending the G-20, it’s not because he hasn’t been working hard at diplomacy. Beijing has seen a flurry of state visits, which, by my count, includes over a dozen heads of state (Brazil, France, Belarus, Iran, Philippines, Cambodia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Gabon, Eritrea) and over a dozen high-ranking official exchanges ranging from the Russia’s prime minister to foreign ministers (Australia, Singapore, Laos, Uruguay, New Zealand) the U.S Secretary of State and the head of the European Commission.
Ready for another meeting?
At the same time, one can discern the outlines of a policy by Beijing to move in the direction of creating a community independent of U.S. influence. This is obvious, if not tendentious, in Beijing’s claim to be a member of the Global South, in spiritual if not strictly geographic terms.
One way to keep the U.S. from dominating the proceedings is to double-down on groupings defined by geography, such as the China-Central Asia Community, which convened earlier this year in Xian, or by focusing on the China-centric Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
China has also worked hard to expand its influence in Southeast Asia, being among the few states that conducts business with the ostracized junta in Burma, and having just completed major railway projects in Laos and Indonesia. China may well view itself as deserving of greater engagement with ASEAN than the U.S., for unlike the latter it is an immediate neighbor of Southeast Asia. But China-Southeast Asia relations are among the most complex and convoluted in the world precisely because of China’s over-sized presence on the northern fringe of the grouping, the contested waters of the South China Sea, and the large Chinese diaspora throughout the region.
To further thwart any notion that China can dominate ASEAN simply because of its sheer political and economic heft, much of the diplomatic history of Southeast Asia (best exemplified by Vietnam but experienced by other nearby states to greater and lesser degrees) is about maintaining trade with China while keeping it politically at bay. Indeed, ASEAN dates back to SEATO which was a U.S.-brokered regional bloc during the Cold War deliberately designed to be a hedge against communist influence in the region.
There are already early indications that China may not send its paramount leader to the APEC meeting in San Francisco this year. Participation in such events takes months to pull off smoothly and preliminary meetings have been delayed. If veteran diplomat Wang Yi, who replaced Qin Gang as foreign minister in July, doesn’t visit the U.S. soon to attend to the critical protocol and logistic issues attendant to paving the way for Xi’s participation in G-7, the likelihood that Xi will not attend is high.
Xi may also consciously elect to lend his time, political capital and attention not on fancy conferences far from home but on China’s homegrown Belt-and-Road Initiative, for which a major conference is planned in Beijing in October. Already some 90 countries have signed on and several national leaders from nations with especially close China ties plan to attend, such as Argentina and Serbia, and maybe even Russia, if Putin’s planned visit to China coincides with the Beijing conference.
This will surely provide more grist for the China-watching mill. Stay tuned.