Why Xi Jinping is sitting out the G20 Summit in New Delhi

China–India tensions may be approaching a flashpoint. President Xi staying away, so soon after a ‘border talk’ with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, looks far from friendly

China's president Xi Jinping on a visit to the Kremlin in March 2023. Xi met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the BRICS meet in August, and hasn't missed any G20 summits except 2021's (due to Covid) but is not coming to New Delhi (photo: Getty Images)
China's president Xi Jinping on a visit to the Kremlin in March 2023. Xi met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the BRICS meet in August, and hasn't missed any G20 summits except 2021's (due to Covid) but is not coming to New Delhi (photo: Getty Images)

Sarosh Bana

In what is seen as an extension of China’s demonstrative belligerence against India, Chinese president Xi Jinping has decided against attending the G20 Summit being held in New Delhi on 9 and 10 September.

Xi’s absence will almost certainly undermine India’s aspirations for global leadership that it sought to claim from its stewardship of the pre-eminent coalition that comprises 19 countries, including the US and some of its Western allies, Russia, Australia, Japan and South Korea, plus the European Union. (India will be handing over the rotational yearly presidency to Brazil for 2024.)

China will instead be represented by Premier Li Qiang, when just days earlier US president Joe Biden had expressed hope of meeting Xi in New Delhi, a meeting which — according to some US officials — will be more likely at the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco in November.

Xi has participated in all G20 summits except the one in Italy in 2021, which he had to skip on account of China’s own Covid-19 regulations.

In recent weeks, China has been steering the situation perilously towards a flashpoint as it bears down on India along the 3,488 km Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Himalayan frontier that divides the two nuclear-armed Asian powers.

In a move widely seen to be aimed at embarrassing India on the eve of the G20 Summit, China on August 28 released the 2023 edition of its ‘standard map’ that claims ownership of both Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin.

Ever since it annexed Tibet in 1950, China has extended itself to India’s frontiers and has historically claimed the 83,743 km² north-east Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls Zangnan or ‘South Tibet’. India besides still lays claim to the 37,244 km² high-altitude desert of Aksai Chin, which had been seized by China in the one full-fledged war between the two countries that had lasted a month in 1962.

Tensions between the two neighbours had escalated again after the nineteenth round of corps commander-level talks in mid-August at the Chushul–Moldo border meeting point ended inconclusively.

Current satellite imagery obtained from the US’s Maxar Technologies and analysed by international geo-intelligence experts reveals construction by Chinese forces of reinforced tunnels and shelters into a hillside along a gorge in the contested Aksai Chin region. The site lies around 60 km east of the Depsang Plains in the northern part of India’s border union territory of Ladakh.

Though the two armies have disengaged from a few of the friction points following previous rounds of talks, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops continue to occupy swathes of eastern Ladakh that they overran in May 2020 to clash with Indian soldiers. They had slain 20 Indian Army personnel in a more violent confrontation in the area a month later, in the first deadly skirmish since the 1962 war.

Even as the two-way talks take place fitfully, the PLA is yet to restore patrolling rights to the Indian Army in the Depsang Plains and at the Charding Ninglung Nullah junction in Demchok.

Modi has not only avoided identifying China as the aggressor while insisting that “no intruder is present inside India’s borders, nor is any post under anyone’s custody”, he has also refrained from discussing the issue by telephone with Xi.

He apparently broached the issue with Xi during the recently concluded BRICS Summit in South Africa that had brought together the two leaders, along with those of Brazil and South Africa. The statements released to the media from both sides seem ever so slightly misaligned as to the nature of the discussion.

Xi has (unsurprisingly) not broached the subject at any stage, lending grist to the belief that China’s military offensive against India is not merely tactical, but has a strategic intent aimed at realising specific long-term objectives. The PLA’s moves are, after all, being directed by China’s seniormost leadership, namely the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which Xi chairs.

Army chief general Manoj Pande had in January spoken of China’s increased troop deployments, while maintaining that their movements and activities were being closely monitored.

Surveillance and satellite imagery indicate China’s three-layer projection of force along the LAC, with a border regiment forming the first layer, two divisions of the Xinjiang and Tibet military district troops the second, and reserve troops in the form of four light-to-medium combined armed brigades, or CABs, forming the third. Each CAB has around 4,500 troops, with mechanised elements and armour as per terrain requirement.

The India Army’s counteraction has involved bolstering its presence on the LAC with artillery, reserves and fixed- and rotor-wing aircraft. It has also deployed the K9-Vajra self-propelled Howitzer regiment, BAE Systems’ 155mm M777 Ultra-Light Howitzers, ex-Swedish Indian-built upgraded 40mm L70 anti-aircraft guns and vintage Bofors guns. The Indian Air Force has deployed Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to provide tactical support to ground forces, Boeing CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters for moving men and material and Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft, alongside the Indian Navy’s Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for conducting land surveillance.

The PLA has, however, been launching a series of unprovoked cross-border intrusions, opening up additional fronts along India’s other border states of Uttarakhand, Arunachal and Sikkim, even as it amasses additional troops across the border, armed with artillery, air defences, combat drones and heavy vehicles.

China’s release of its ‘map’ led New Delhi to file a formal protest through diplomatic channels, and India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar stated, “China has put out maps with territories [that are] not theirs. [It is an] old habit. Just by putting out maps with parts of India... doesn’t change anything. Our government is very clear about our territory. Making absurd claims does not make other people’s territories yours.” 

Wang Xiaojian, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India, countered by calling the release of the map “the normal exercise of sovereignty in accordance with law”, adding, “We hope relevant sides stay objective and calm, and refrain from over-interpreting the issue.”

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