China has indicated that leader Xi Jinping will skip an important gathering of the world's 20 top economies for the first time with Premier Li Qiang traveling to the event in New Delhi this weekend in his place.
The no-show of China's top leader – unprecedented since the first such summit was held in 2008 – will likely be seen as a snub to India, which is hosting the powerful group of world leaders for the first time amid efforts to boost its global clout under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Questions about Xi's attendance at the meeting were first raised last week when Reuters reported the Chinese leader was likely to miss it, citing two unnamed Indian diplomats.
At a regular news conference Monday, China's Foreign Ministry said Li, China's second-ranking leader, would attend the summit on Saturday and Sunday, without mentioning Xi.
Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the ministry, sidestepped a question from a reporter about the reason for Xi's non-attendance.
"The Group of 20 is a major forum for international economic cooperation, and China has always attached great importance to and actively participated in relevant activities," Mao said, without addressing the substance of the question.
Even during the Covid pandemic, Xi attended the meetings in 2020 and 2021 by video link.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who faces an international arrest warrant over alleged war crimes in Ukraine, will also skip the summit.
Russia will be represented by its foreign minister instead.
Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Xi's absence at the G20 summit will be "highly conspicuous," but given Beijing's opacity one can only speculate on the reasons behind that decision.
"It could be an intentional snub against India, or it could be that Xi is preoccupied with domestic issues. It could also be that Xi doesn't feel the timing is right for him to meet with certain leaders, like President Biden or Prime Minister Modi," he said.
"But perceptions matter. Regardless of whether it is intended as a snub against India, some will see it as such."
Beijing's announcement has dashed hopes that Xi and US President Joe Biden might meet at the summit, as the two superpowers seek to stabilize their rocky relations.
Preempting confirmation from Beijing, Biden on Sunday publicly expressed disappointment that he would not see Xi in New Delhi.
"I am disappointed – but I'm going to get to see him," Biden told reporters on Sunday.
Biden had previously told CNN he would be meeting with Xi in "the fall."
The two leaders last spoke in person in November 2022 on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, where they pledged to restore channels of communication in an effort to prevent rising tensions from spilling into open conflict. That meeting is the only time the two have met in person since Biden took office.
Four US cabinet officials have visited Beijing in recent months, after a suspected Chinese spy balloon derailed a fledgling effort at rapprochement earlier in the year.
Xi's absence from the G20 summit also means he will not have a formal bilateral meeting with Modi, as the two nuclear-powered neighbors remain at loggerheads over their contested border.
Xi and Modi agreed to "intensify efforts" to deescalate tensions at the border last month on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in South Africa – which was seen as a step toward mending their fraught relationship.
But tensions rose again last week when India lodged a "strong protest" against China's newly published national map, which it said included the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and the disputed Aksai-Chin plateau in Chinese territory.
The disputed border has long been a source of friction between New Delhi and Beijing, with the agitation spilling into a 1962 war that ended in a Chinese victory.
Tensions rose again in 2020 after a deadly brawl in the Galwan Valley resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese.