G20 in Delhi, US ties, Global South leadership: Decoding Beijing worldview through Chinese press

China seeks to retain its leadership of the Global South, and it’s not only national interest that’s driving its foreign policy.

WrittenBy:Jabin T Jacob
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China’s responses to the recently-concluded G20 Summit in New Delhi merits scrutiny given the tensions in bilateral relations, but also because it is a major regional and global player that has the ability to influence matters even in absentia. And it was the absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping from the summit that seemed to garner the most headlines in India and around the world before the summit itself. 

This article looks at Chinese responses under three aspects — India as the host of the summit, self-identification as a leader of the Global South, and desire to shape and lead the world independent of the G20 and other multilateral groupings. It also examines the driving forces of China’s external disposition and its worldviews.

On India as G20 host

On Xi’s absence from the G20 leaders’ summit, the South China Morning Post, once a proudly independent Hong Kong newspaper, now owned by Alibaba’s Jack Ma and reduced to toeing the Beijing central government’s line quoted experts suggesting that it was a “reasonable decision to send [Chinese Premier] Li [Qiang], who is in charge of the country’s economic policy, to represent China at the G20, which is intended as a platform to discuss international economic and financial issues”.

This was basically echoing the line of the Chinese foreign ministry — repeated also by Chinese state news agency Xinhua — which described the G20 as “the main forum for international economic cooperation”. This, however, does not explain why Xi had attended previous iterations of the G20 summit instead of sending his then premier Li Keqiang.

The foreign ministry statement also went on to declare support for India’s hosting of the summit while describing ties as “stable”. An op-ed in the Communist Party of China mouthpiece People’s Daily subsidiary, Global Times also noted that Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar had “commended China for being very supportive of the various outcomes”.

There is, however, clearly a strand of thought in China that is concerned about India’s growing weight in international relations as well as its increasing closeness to the US, which the Chinese see as their principal challenger. 

Zhu Feng, a senior professor at Nanjing University, another prominent Chinese university, however, states that Xi’s choice to give the G20 summit a miss was a reflection of the state of India-China ties rather than a statement about US-China relations. China had also earlier boycotted a G20 tourism event held in Jammu and Kashmir. 

An article by a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, one of China’s most important international affairs think-tanks under the government, seemed to resent India’s opportunity as G20 host criticising it for wanting to do the US’ bidding as a representative of the Global South. 

Another analyst from China’s elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, declared that India “should not mix geopolitical factors while voicing for Global South” claiming that India was using its G20 presidency not only “to expand its influence in the Global South” but to “serve as a bridge between developing countries and the US-led West”. Well-known India analyst Lan Jianxue from the Chinese foreign ministry think-tank, China Institute of International Studies, said, “New Delhi’s practice of undermining developing countries’ unity and cooperation and boosting itself by belittling other countries deserves vigilance.” In other words, the imputation is that India is somehow unworthy of representing the Global South. While the Tsinghua analyst tries to temper his remarks by saying India and China have “consistent or similar positions in jointly safeguarding the interests of countries in the Global South”, the Chinese clearly have difficulty according India any agency vis-à-vis the US. 

China’s South Asia observers were also quick to highlight the domestic uses of the G20 summit for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his governing Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP. As Lan pointed out, “[The Modi administration] also intends to turn this into a major diplomatic achievement domestically and use it as an opportunity for the [BJP] to campaign for next year’s general elections.” The name change from ‘India’ to ‘Bharat’ also did not go unnoticed and was put down to domestic political considerations in India.

Seeking leadership 

The aforementioned Chinese foreign ministry statement of support for India’s hosting of the summit has to do with Beijing’s desire to shape the outcomes of the summit. Subsequent analyses suggest that China seems to have achieved its goals given that they declare the US a loser from the G20 summit because it was not only unable to get a statement that criticised Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, but had to accept language that could be read as implicitly critical of US foreign policy and actions.

China’s interest in the G20 particularly seems to stem from its Global South component and its desire to retain leadership of this bloc declaring as one commentary did, “No matter how much hype the United States and the West try to generate, it is impossible to separate China from the G20”. The above Global Times op-ed dismissed ‘rumours’ that China favoured BRICS over the G20. 

Indeed, China seems anxious to underline its position as “a natural member of the ‘Global South’ and has noted that “some countries are eager to further politicise it for their own selfish interests as a diplomatic tool to suppress their opponents”, naming the US and Japan in particular. 

Chinese commentary has highlighted China’s desire to “uphold justice and promote changes in global governance” as well as its launching and promoting the expansion of the BRICS Cooperation Mechanism and being the first G20 country to support the African Union's accession to the G20 – the last, something that India, too, has taken credit for. Indeed, the addition of the African Union is seen as a “‘rectification’ to counter the attempts by the US and the West to hijack the G20 summit agenda”.

Meanwhile, at the G77+China summit held at Havana in Cuba, about a few days after the G20 summit, India did not send a minister to attend the summit despite being a member of what is the world’s largest bloc of developing nations — but China, which is not a member, sent Li Xi, a member of the CPC’s Political Bureau Standing Committee and ranked higher than the present foreign minister Wang Yi, to attend as Xi’s special representative. Li used the opportunity to declare, “China is the world’s largest developing nation and a natural member of the Global South” and that his country was “ready… to open a new chapter in South-South cooperation” and to “build a Global South community with a shared future”, the latter a key talking point in Chinese foreign policy under Xi.

Striking out on its own

A People’s Daily editorial on the G77 meet used another important talking point from Xi’s lexicon namely, that “the world is currently undergoing major changes unseen in a century” in its call for “South-South cooperation” against “unilateralism and hegemonism”. The target, when the editorial states that “some countries are resorting to unilateral sanctions and decoupling, seriously harming the legitimate development rights and space of developing countries”, is now not just the US with its trade war and attempt to decouple from China, but also India which has imposed its own restrictions against trade with and investments from China since the Galwan clashes in 2020.

The South China Morning Post report also pointed out that “The G20 now talks about everything and engages in politics…Everyone has their own agenda there” while the aforementioned Global Times op-ed implicitly criticised the US for using the G20 as “an arena to push forward its own selfish agenda”. There is doubt whether the outcomes of the G20 summit such as the IMEC will lead anywhere given the limitations of capital investment and other capacities of the participating countries. But while some Chinese analysts tend to dismiss the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor’s ability to compete with BRI, others see its launch as “a challenge” to China’s BRI and an attempt “to undercut China’s influence in related regions”. China, therefore, needed to be “wary” of the G20 agenda “mixed with the geopolitical intentions of the West led by the US”.

Indeed, prominent Chinese academic, Shi Yinhong, pointed out that with “varying degrees of confrontation” that many countries have with China, the G20 would become a platform with “shrinking value” for Beijing because of its inability to exert major influence. In fact, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also tried to pre-empt pressure on China at another upcoming multilateral forum, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November, calling on the US to “be keenly aware of its duty as the host and showcase openness, fairness, inclusiveness and responsibility to create more favourable conditions for the smooth convocation of the meeting.” 

China’s interest or involvement in the G20 and other multilateral groupings apart, it has also steadily tried to promote its own projects, notably the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its three new spin-offs — the Global Development Initiative (GDI), Global Security Initiative and Global Civilization Initiative. Commenting on the G77+China summit at Havana, a journalist from the state-run CCTV specifically stated that global power dynamics had become clearer following the G20 and the G77 summit’s call for an end to an “international order filled with plunder” with the implication again that this was happening because of the US-led West. 

A week later, Beijing released a report card on two years of the GDI highlighting its “practical achievements” no doubt intending to draw a contrast with the G20. China’s aim is to show that the “GDI prioritises development and closely aligns with the central task of implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations” and in the process presents “a new model of international development cooperation that is more inclusive, diverse, and sustainable”. Once again the implication is that the existing global order led by the West is none of these things forgetting the fact that China has benefitted from this order. It is also very much a part of this order in its role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in which capacity it has only paid lip service to the reform and expansion of that institution, a key demand of India and other G77 members. 

Explaining China’s approaches

China’s response to the G20 summit in India, including Chinese president Xi’s absence from the summit needs to be understood in the context of China’s domestic political dynamics and its self-image of a power that is destined to be global No.1.

To start with China’s domestic dynamics. Foreign policy in China is not run like that in most other countries. It is not “national interests”, as we would commonly understand them, that drive Chinese foreign policy as much as the interests of one political party, namely, the governing CPC. And the one interest above all of the CPC is to remain in power — all else is secondary. Xi’s power, in fact, comes not from his position as president of China but as general secretary of the CPC. This said, his and the CPC’s ability to stay in power also draws on quite strongly from external policies. Of these policies, promoting the image of Xi as not just a wise and benevolent ruler at home but also as a global statesman and supplier of ideas and solutions for the world’s problems, has been a particularly prominent facet through his first two terms in power. 

This approach was on display, for example, when China adroitly exploited the chaos and inward turn in American foreign policy, under the Donald Trump administration, to portray Xi as a champion of globalisation at World Economic Forum summit at Davos in Switzerland in 2017. While China has indeed been the greatest beneficiary of globalisation and also scaled up its flow of investment to the rest of the world under its BRI, in practice it has also acted in mercantilist fashion with a record of imposing non-tariff barriers to block or slow-down imports from other countries, including India, in sectors where it thought it necessary to defend or promote its own industries. Moreover, it has used trade leverage to achieve political objectives. It has, at various times, blocked imports from South Korea and Australia, for example, for being parties to American security interests or from Norway for awarding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident in jail. Xi’s Davos speech was, therefore, a remarkable act of chutzpah. 

Another example of what might be termed the Party’s foreign policy, came in the wake of Covid-19 when Chinese diplomats adopted a no-holds barred approach to countering information that the virus had originated in China and the fact that it was the Chinese political system that was responsible for allowing its unchecked spread across the country, first, and then, across the globe. China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy as the phenomenon came to be called, saw its diplomats adopt thoroughly undiplomatic, even obnoxious behaviour, and was possible only because they owe greater allegiance to the Party and preserving its image as a benign and efficient governing party than the country’s image itself. Thus, Chinese diplomats defended a regime led by a political party that had punished doctors for their early warnings and tried to hide the problem from the world before it became impossible to do so. Needless to say, the Chinese regime also covered up the actual deaths and imposed draconian lockdowns in an effort to keep the numbers low. These ‘low numbers’, China’s diplomats then contrasted with the chaos and high numbers of deaths in other countries — especially in the US — as a sign once again that China’s government was more capable and efficient than those of others. 

In late 2022, however, the CPC finally abandoned a vexed ‘zero-Covid’ policy under pressure of popular protests at a scale unseen in decades. Xi had simultaneously also been sharpening his differences with the liberal global order by not only not condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine but in many ways providing political and economic support for what China’s rulers think of as a kindred regime that is similarly anti-Western and anti-democratic in its tendencies. 

One part of this worldview was also evident in the summer of 2020 along the disputed boundary with India when Chinese transgressions led to the most serious clashes between troops of the two countries and the first casualties since 1975. The clashes are essentially the result of CPC’s belief that India will not bow to China’s self-proclaimed superiority in Asia and that New Delhi is increasingly an ally of the US — the global power that China seeks to dethrone and replace.

China at the global stage 

India’s goal at the G20 summit was to arrest the slide towards a fragmented world order even as it promoted the interests of the Global South. For China, even as it talked of having “no interest in building ‘small yards with high fences’”, and seeks the widest membership for its own initiatives, this ‘inclusiveness’ is in reality very much an attempt to undercut Western influence — and by extension, the place of Western values and norms — in international politics. This is the only logical path for a political party determined to stay in power at home which sees competing political systems and ideologies as creating existential threats. 

India is seen as one such competing political system but it suits the CPC to portray global politics to its people as a neat contest between China and the US than concede the complications of acknowledging India’s regional or global weight. In practice, therefore, the CPC’s self-interest actually creates a preference for a fragmentation of the world that would allow China to become a leader of one camp out of two with the other seen as being led by the US. Until, of course, it can replace the latter as a global superpower.

Jabin T Jacob is an associate professor at Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, and director at Centre for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence.

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