Why Putin will not attend G20; Will Xi Jinping?

Story by  Saeed Naqvi | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 27-08-2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping


Saeed Naqvi 

It was known that President Vladimir Putin will not attend the G20, but will Xi Jinping attend? Let me take up Putin first: Putin did not attend the Bali Summit last November. The reasons that kept him away from that meeting have not gone away. Why then would he have acted differently on this occasion? 

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Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, attended in his place. When he got up to speak, participants from the West walked out. The Western media, in the drill for just such an event, took the focus away from all the wonderful things Indonesian President, Joko Widodo was planning for his guests. 

Putin is a target in another league. He has been thoroughly demonized, painted in the most lurid colours as one whom Senator Lindsay Graham wanted to be assassinated and who the US President himself called “butcher, butcher...” so many times that this security staff was sprayed. Putin’s appearance would have inspired the media to a higher level of defilement. Never mind if the next morning serious G20 events appeared in very small print. Putin would have been splashed all over looking like Mephistopheles. So, just as well he skipped the meeting. 

For the New Delhi summit, President Joe Biden has already announced his participation. Indeed, he is arriving a day earlier. He will have enough time to twist Modi’s arm. Biden and his cohorts had more or less given notice that should Putin as much as a peep into the summit through a crack in the door, they would raise such hell that Narendra Modi’s party would be spoilt. 

There is sufficient trust between Modi and Putin that the latter’s nonappearance will be seen for what it is. This outcome will also demonstrate a certain ambidextrous finesse on New Delhi’s part: 

Sheikh bhi khush rahe 

Shaitan bhi naraaz na ho 

(Pleasing God without offending the devil) 

The takeaway for Putin is the non-mention of Ukraine in the final communique. European diplomats, with the Germans taking the lead, had tried every trick, at every level in South Block, to somehow insert Ukraine in the final document. 

Even psychological games were played. “Indian position on Ukraine is changing” went the whisper in the galleries. Before this one had subsided, another rumour was floated, “Russian position is changing so a mention of Ukraine in the final document will be appropriate.” South Block has most skillfully walked through the minefield. 

Regardless, the pressure from the West is relentless. “Can Volodymyr Zelensky be invited?” or “Can he at least make an appearance?” 

Enabling Ukraine’s President to gatecrash into summits is not just an imaginary happening. The script was played out at the summit of the G7 at Nagasaki. Japan at the outset said “no”. 

President Emmanuel Macron of France has mastered the art of playing both sides of the street. Not surprising then that an official, French aircraft landed at Nagasaki with the embattled President of the Republic of Ukraine, Zelensky, holed up inside. Zelensky was not embarrassed; he appeared at the summit. 

Similar maneuvers are on to give him entry at the New Delhi venue too. Modi, a master choreographer, is not going to allow any amount of arm twisting to spoil the décor of his show. But supposing he is presented with a fait accompli: Zelensky has been delivered at the main gate by, say, the Germans. Will the gate remain shut? 

Xi Jinping’s arrival or non-arrival is a different story. Modi and the Chinese leader met on the margins of the Bali summit as well as during the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. Peace and tranquility in the border areas and respect for the LAC were stressed. “Unresolved issues” are India’s concern and the two leaders agreed to work towards disengagement and de-escalation. 

If Xi does not undertake the journey because of “other pressing matters”, the signal will be that the delegations are inching toward an agreement. As soon as the gap between the two sides closes, it will be Modi’s call – when to celebrate? 

Now, before the 2024 elections or afterward! 

Spokesmen for Xi and Modi cannot look credible saying the same thing from Bali, Johannesburg, and now New Delhi. What is in the bargain is not just a border issue but what course lies in store for two ancient, proud civilizations, countries with the world’s two largest populations, vastly more than a billion each. These are easy comparisons. Thereafter, the complications begin. China is miles ahead of India in economic and military power and social cohesion. 

India would like to catch up. Towards this end, it keeps a very firm line of friendship with the US which, unlike European nations, sees China as a threat. 

As palpitations on account of China’s rise have picked up in Washington, so has the price tag on India’s friendship gone up in value? During his visit to Washington in June Modi picked up some rewards of goodwill. Rewards will keep increasing so long as India sustains its adversarial stance with China.

Against this background, all this talk of Xi and Modi walking under banners, buntings, and confetti after a border deal is sealed, disturbs Washington, which bestowed on Modi the sort of defense technology deals that are meant only for close allies. The term “alliance” is anathema to New Delhi. It prefers “partnership”. 

In its sole superpower moment, Washington had the might to obtain signatures even on blank affidavit papers. No longer, particularly after the drubbing the hegemon’s image has received in all its military outings since the Vietnam War, climaxed by the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and now fighting to the last Ukrainian towards heaven knows what end. 

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An anxiety-riven headline on the cover of the Economist, “What if China and India make up?” comes across as a function of an acute lack of self-confidence. In this state of mind, a Washington-Beijing entente, on the other side of the horizon, is not unthinkable. 

The late T.K. Kaul’s description of the New Delhi, Beijing, and Washington equation as “the tantalizing triangle” was apt. 

Saeed Naqvi is a New Delhi-based veteran journalist