A big priority of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government at present is to somehow ensure China’s President Xi Jinping’s physical presence in New Delhi on 9-10 September for the G20 Leaders' Summit. The Chinese leader hasn’t confirmed his participation to keep his hosts on tenterhooks so that Beijing can exploit the uncertainty and suspense for its own ends.
On 11 August, MEA Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi publicly confirmed that Xi is yet to confirm his participation in the G20 event. At the weekly media briefing, he told a reporter who wanted to know whether Xi had confirmed his participation, that he would “certainly share the information when we are in a position to do so”, openly admitting that China has so far made no commitment whatsoever about Xi’s attendance despite India sending him an invitation.
The MEA spokesperson, in fact, threw up his hands and egged on the journalist to find out directly from the Chinese government whether he was coming or not. Bagchi’s whole demeanour revealed that India is really in the dark – it simply can’t fathom if Xi is going to turn up or play hooky.
What’s Riding on Xi’s Presence
New Delhi’s stakes in Xi’s attendance are very high – and its concerns natural.
The G20 Summit will be Modi’s moment under the diplomatic sun – and abstention by a powerful world leader like Xi will no doubt cast a dark shadow on the big occasion.
If Modi pulls it off without a blemish, his standing as a global statesman will improve, enabling his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to leverage it in domestic politics for winning the upcoming general elections.
While the harvest is both promising and tempting, there is no denying that one of the biggest challenges Modi is facing ahead of the summit is the million-dollar question of Xi’s attendance and the possibility of China’s President spoiling Modi’s mega show by simply keeping away.
Obviously, XI has his own strategy in place for maximising his and China’s gains from the G20 Summit. The diplomatic fog over his game plan might disperse a little next week when Xi and Modi come face to face in Johannesburg from 22 to 24 August for the BRICS Summit.
The Indian side is humming with the possibility of a Modi-Xi bilateral meeting on the sidelines, but the Chinese side is nonchalant.
If they do hold talks on the BRICS margins, it will be the first positive development in the troubled India-China relationship since Galwan.
Online SCO Is in National Interest
The Modi regime has so much riding on the G20 Summit internationally and domestically that it can’t treat it like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit – and hold it in virtual format to put Xi in his place.
China and India are members of G20 as well as the SCO – and India is holding the rotating presidency of both blocs this year. New Delhi was scheduled to host an in-person SCO Summit in June, but it suddenly announced in May that it would host an online summit instead and got away with it!
Soon after the virtual SCO Summit, Catherine Putz wrote in The Diplomat that India decided against an in-person summit as it doubted whether Xi “would make the trek to New Delhi”. If Modi had hosted an in-person summit and Xi gave it a miss, it would have shown Modi in poor light. New Delhi was also apprehensive that Xi might send Prime Minister Li Qiang instead to slight India. Moreover, retired Indian Diplomat Ashok Sajjanhar revealed in StratNews Global that India decided in favour of a virtual SCO Summit after it received “no response about the participation of Xi”. He wrote that China thought “that it would be able to use its participation to extract some concessions from India on the border issue or on normalisation of bilateral ties”.
But “rather than remain on tenterhooks about Xi’s physical participation or plead for its participation at the level of Xi, India decided to go the virtual way”.
Xi’s intentions became even more evident after India announced on 30 May that the virtual SCO Summit would be held on 4 July, but Xi confirmed his participation only on 1 July to keep piling pressure on New Delhi.
So, in hindsight, India has no reason to regret its decision to fall back on the online format in the national interest.
G20 Can’t Be Held Online
However, in today’s scenario, the option of hosting a virtual G20 Summit is not on the table for India to exercise.
Ominously, there was no progress whatsoever in the border talks held on 14 August between Chinese and Indian Army commanders to resolve the standoff in Ladakh. The joint statement is full of positive expressions, but the bottom line is that the People’s Liberation Army has once again refused to withdraw from Indian territories in Depsang and Demchok. There is no thaw to talk about. China’s message is that might is right.
Beijing is also determined to undermine in every way it can India’s presidency of G20 weeks before leaders – including Xi – are expected to gather in New Delhi for the grand finale choreographed by India.
China’s double standards are evident from its objections to the use of Sanskrit expression, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, in official G20 papers.
It has derisively called Sanskrit a non-UN language and is haughtily insisting that every letter in documents must be from UN-recognised languages.
With China going hammer and tongs, it’s natural for the Indian government to keep its fingers crossed about Xi’s attendance. What happens in Johannesburg next week will be a pointer to what might eventually play out in New Delhi.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)