Chinese President Xi does not plan to attend Rome summit in person, envoys tell G-20 officials

Mr Xi Jinping has not been out of China since mid-January 2020, but has virtually attended meetings with counterparts.
Mr Xi Jinping has not been out of China since mid-January 2020, but has virtually attended meetings with counterparts.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Chinese diplomats have informed officials from the Group of 20 (G-20) nations that President Xi Jinping does not currently plan to attend a summit in Italy this month in person, according to four people familiar with the matter.

The message was conveyed at a meeting of G-20 envoys known as sherpas in Florence last month.

Chinese envoys cited China's Covid-19 protocols, which can include quarantine mandates for returning travellers, as a reason Mr Xi did not intend to go to Rome, three of the sources said.

The sources said there had been no communications on the matter since, and Italy, which is hosting the G-20 this year, has yet to receive an official response either way.

Beijing often announces the President's travel plans at the last minute, and any final decision may not be sent to Prime Minister Mario Draghi's government until closer to the summit, which starts on Oct 30.

The Italian government declined to comment.

China's embassies in London and Rome did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mr Xi has not been out of the country since mid-January last year, the longest stint of any G-20 leader, although he has virtually attended meetings including a gathering of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations last month and held dozens of individual calls with counterparts.

Crunch time, globally

The G-20 meeting comes at a crucial time for international relations with topics ranging from climate change to Covid-19 vaccine supplies on the agenda and the global economy struggling due to shortages of everything from labour to semiconductors and energy.

China's position is central to many of those issues and Mr Xi's absence would make reaching substantive agreement more difficult, according to the message conveyed by diplomats.

Summits also provide a chance for leaders to meet one-on-one on the sidelines, and those bilateral conversations often prove the most fruitful in resolving differences.

China and the United States remain embroiled in tensions over trade, technology, human rights and Beijing's strategic assertiveness in Asia, including with Taiwan, a democratically governed island that China sees as its territory.

US President Joe Biden and Mr Xi spoke on the phone last month in a conversation that yielded little and where the Chinese President did not take up an offer for a potential in-person meeting.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will, however, meet top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Switzerland this week.

The G-20 summit takes place on the eve of the United Nations Climate Change conference, COP26, where leaders will try and strike a deal to keep global temperatures in check and reach net-zero by 2050, as well as raise tens of billions of dollars to support green transitions in developing countries.

As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, China's role in reaching a global accord is seen as key.

The European diplomats were sceptical that Mr Xi would attend COP26, which is being held in Glasgow, should he miss the Rome summit. But another person said the British government, which is hosting the climate meeting, is still hopeful he will show up.

The G-20 timing is also potentially delicate for Mr Xi at home. China's ruling party will convene for the first time in more than a year next month, laying the ground for a twice-a-decade party congress in 2022 that could extend his term as leader.