Chinese Premier Li Qiang lands in India facing first international test

Officials from both sides indicated no plans had been made for a structured bilateral meeting, although Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr. Li will have the opportunity for informal interactions along the sidelines of G-20

September 08, 2023 08:36 pm | Updated September 10, 2023 12:35 am IST - New Delhi:

China’s Premier Li Qiang. File

China’s Premier Li Qiang. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

Chinese Premier Li Qiang arrived in New Delhi on Friday evening for the G-20 summit, which will, for the relatively unknown second-ranked Chinese leader, mark a first major international diplomatic test.

Mr. Li earlier this week attended the East Asia Summit in Jakarta, but the G-20 will pose its own challenges with its higher profile and the presence of Western leaders who have been sharply critical of China, especially for its stand on the Ukraine crisis, a major sticking point that threatens to derail a joint communique for the first time in G-20 history.

Watch | How would Xi Jinping’s absence at the G-20 Summit be viewed in China?

He also lands in India at a low point in China-India relations. As of Friday evening, officials from both sides indicated no plans had been made for a structured bilateral meeting, although Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr. Li will have the opportunity for informal interactions along the sidelines of the G-20. Substantive talks on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) situation are unlikely as Mr. Li unlike previous Premiers such as Wen Jiabao only handles economic matters, with the office of the Premier significantly downgraded under Mr. Xi’s one-man rule.

Speaking ahead of his arrival, Ma Jia, the charge d’affaires and acting envoy in the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi — Beijing has declined to appoint a permanent ambassador for as long as 11 months without offering any explanation — called on both countries “to restore development as the centrepiece on the international agenda”, in an interview with state broadcaster China Global Television Network.

Chinese officials and experts have in the lead up to the G-20 criticised the “politicisation” of a body that they say should be limited to economic issues rather than political crisis such as Ukraine.

While Beijing has not offered a reason for President Xi Jinping skipping the summit, observers have seen the absence as signalling China’s displeasure with the West and to avoid Mr. Xi coming under pressure or facing isolation in the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Domestic political reasons

Some reports have suggested domestic political reasons — such as Mr. Xi facing pressure because of mounting economic problems — may have further prompted the Chinese President to stay away, although Mr. Xi only recently spent more than two days in South Africa for the BRICS summit. The G-20 would have, in contrast, likely only required a day-long visit. Moreover, Mr. Xi is this week away from Beijing, the political centre, on a tour of China’s northeast, and in coming days will host Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema.

On bilateral ties, Ms. Ma said “current China-India relations are generally stable”. “The two leaders keep in touch through communication. President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi had two face-to-face interactions in the past year [at the Bali G-20 and BRICS last month], which defines the tone and direction of stabilising and improving the bilateral relations,” she added. “The border situation between our two countries is also stable. We have maintained communication through diplomatic and military channels.”

One outcome that China is hoping from the visit is a relaxation of restrictions on investment into India, said Liu Hong, Vice-President and Senior Fellow of the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG) in Beijing.

“With the reported rejection of a $1 billion investment from BYD to build electric vehicles in India, and the fine on Xiaomi, the business environment now is not favourable or positive,” he said. “We would also like to see a restoration of flights and visas and greater two-way movement of businesspeople and ordinary Chinese and Indians, which is good for both countries.”

India has made it clear normalcy is not possible without the restoration of peace on the LAC. The Chinese military has, however, dragged its feet in disengagement negotiations and to restore India’s patrolling rights.

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