NEW DELHI — If showing up is one of life’s basic tenets, President Joe Biden may have one-upped his rivals the moment he stepped off Air Force One and set foot on Indian soil.
The leaders of America’s two main geopolitical foes, China and Russia, stayed home as the world’s wealthiest countries met this week for the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi — a point that Biden administration officials have been happy to emphasize.
Biden aims to create a counterweight to Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region, while also stepping up pressure on Russia to end its grinding war with Ukraine. Neither is easy. But the Biden administration hopes that the symbolism playing out on China’s doorstep won’t be lost on the rest of the world: With his wife testing positive for Covid on the eve of the summit, Biden flew 7,500 miles to promote his foreign policy vision while counterparts Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia opted out.
Jonathan Finer, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, said in a press briefing Saturday that “the United States is focused on the fact that President Biden is here, and rolling up his sleeves, with the other G20 countries and partners to produce real results.”
Both China and Russia sent representatives to the G20 summit, though in the autocratic systems they lead, Xi and Putin are the only ones fully empowered to make decisions. Putin’s absence is easier to understand. Were he to come, he would face two days of ringing condemnation from the U.S., the United Kingdom, France and other Western nations who’ve implored him to pull back troops and leave Ukraine.
Xi’s decision to skip the summit — the first time he's done so since coming to power 10 years ago — has left foreign policy analysts baffled. He flew to South Africa just last month for a summit with several other nations, including India. At a time when the U.S. and China are looking to gain leverage over one another by cementing partnerships, missing the G20 would seem a lost opportunity.
U.S. officials could not explain why Xi didn’t show, though theories abound. He faces an economic downturn at home that needs his attention. China is coping with record-high youth unemployment as it transitions from the Covid-era lockdowns.
The G20 is “not the ultimate priority for China because China has bigger fish to fry domestically,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.
Xi may have also may have wanted to snub Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with whom he has a border dispute, analysts said.
“It will be seen in India as a slap in the face to Modi,” said John Bolton, a former national security adviser in the Trump White House and a former ambassador to the United Nations. “It’s hard for me to understand why Xi Jinping would risk that. It’s a short flight. Does have some crisis at home or something else going on?”
Without Xi at the table, the leaders in attendance aren't getting an audience with the head of the world's second-largest economy, limiting chances of a breakthrough on disputes that include trade, navigation of the South China Sea, and the status of the self-governing island of Taiwan.
“It will certainly make any consensus building potentially more difficult, because if you want to, say, talk about the global supply chain and China is not there, what supply chain are we talking about?” Sun said.
Biden said last week that he was “disappointed” that Xi would not attend the summit. Last year he met privately with Xi on the sidelines of the G20 gathering in Indonesia. Since then, relations between the two leaders soured over the Chinese spy balloon that traversed the U.S. At a fundraising event in June, Biden referred to Xi as a "dictator."
Biden's administration has also worried that China might supply weapons to Russia, a development that could tilt the war in Putin's favor. (China has said it won't sell weapons to either side in the conflict). At an early session on Saturday, Biden made the argument that Russia’s war is harming not only Ukraine, but other countries that are part of the G20 through increased hunger and economic disruption, U.S. officials said.
Later in the day, Biden stood with Modi to roll out a series of ambitious new infrastructure projects aimed at helping poorer nations. The centerpiece is a planned “economic corridor” connecting India, the Middle East and Europe through rail and shipping lines.
“This is a big deal,” Biden said, in a more family-friendly echo of a phrase he once used as vice president to celebrate passage of health care overhaul.
The broader initiative, branded as the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, is Biden’s answer to the “Belt and Road Initiative” that China has used to expand its influence with smaller nations that need investment dollars. By raising public and private capital, Biden and U.S. allies are looking to peel away some weaker countries from China, giving them a source of funding that doesn’t make them beholden to Beijing.
That neither Putin nor Xi were in attendance may have helped Biden garner a level of attention that such initiatives wouldn’t otherwise command.
“Biden has the stage largely to himself,” said Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. “The tremendous attention that would have been focused on Putin had he attended, or on Xi Jinping had he attended, has been removed. He doesn’t have to compete with Putin and Xi Jinping. And he doesn’t have to concentrate on how he’s going to deal with them.”
The summit hasn't been a complete triumph for Biden. When it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the leaders issued a joint statement that is far more milquetoast than the fiery declaration released last year.
At the G20 in Indonesia in 2022, the joint statement singled out Russia by name, saying that the leaders deplored “in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and demands its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine.” The new statement merely says that “all states must refrain from the threat or use of force to seek territorial acquisition against the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of any state.”
Biden also may face backlash over his handshake Saturday with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman. They clasped hands at the end of the meeting devoted to the new infrastructure initiative.
In the first month of Biden’s term, a U.S. intelligence report was released that concluded that bin Salman approved the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. (The Saudis released a statement condemning the intelligence report as “false.”)
Having pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” when he ran for office in 2020, Biden has since sought a stable working relationship with the kingdom, in part to preserve some sway over gas prices.