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Beijing's Diplomatic Drawbridge: How China's Isolationism May Reshape Geopolitics

The decision by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to attend the G20 summit in India has set off alarm bells among foreign diplomats stationed in China. Coupled with increasing challenges to get access to Chinese officials, these events have sparked concerns about China's openness—or lack thereof—to engage with the West and its allies. This article delves into the recent shift in China's diplomatic behavior, its potential implications, and what it means for the evolving geopolitics of the world.




The Retreat Behind the Great Wall

In what is seen as a concerning departure from the norm, President Xi Jinping has decided to skip the G20 summit in India. Notably, Premier Li Qiang will lead the Chinese delegation instead. Xi has participated in every G20 summit since taking office more than a decade ago, making this absence an unusual event that is hard to ignore.


For diplomats representing more than ten countries, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, this marks a continuation of a trend that has become increasingly noticeable in 2023. They report that access to Chinese officials has become progressively more challenging, even after China lifted the strict pandemic controls that had curtailed diplomatic activities for three years.


An Opaque Power

Ryan Neelam, a foreign policy analyst and former Australian diplomat based in Hong Kong, identifies a 'trickle-down' effect of Xi's strict regime on Chinese officials' engagement with foreign powers. "Lower-level officials, bureaucrats, and diplomats are less willing to go off script," says Neelam, the director of public opinion and foreign policy at the Lowy Institute.


The implication of this managed diplomacy is worrying. If there are fewer opportunities for informal interactions and less access to decision-makers, the scope for finding common ground or areas for compromise is severely limited.


China-West Relations: From Bad to Worse

The decline in diplomatic openness doesn't exist in a vacuum. Relations between China and Western countries have deteriorated in recent years for a multitude of reasons. From China's reluctance to condemn ally Russia for its invasion of Ukraine to ongoing tensions over sensitive technologies and Taiwan—a democratic, self-ruled island that Beijing claims—international relations are in a precarious state.


The International Landscape

Xi's absence at the G20 summit can also be viewed through the lens of his travel behavior this year. He has only left China twice: once for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and then for a gathering of BRICS nations in South Africa, where he also missed delivering a keynote address. This could indicate that China is not just pulling away from Western powers but is also selectively engaging with countries it views as friendly or strategically important.


Analyzing the Repercussions

  1. Limited Information: Reduced diplomatic engagement means fewer opportunities to gain insights into the world's second-largest economy. This could have significant consequences for international businesses and governments alike.

  2. Heightened Mistrust: With limited diplomatic channels, there's a greater risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations, which could escalate existing tensions.

  3. Strategic Realignments: If China is increasingly selective in its international interactions, countries may be forced to reconsider their geopolitical alliances and strategies.

  4. Global Governance: Reduced participation from a significant global actor like China could hamper collective actions to address pressing global issues, from climate change to international security.




Conclusion

While China has not explicitly stated its rationale for Xi's absence at the G20 summit or the perceived reticence in diplomatic interactions, the implications are clear. Countries are becoming concerned about what they see as Beijing's growing isolationism, and its impact on geopolitics and global governance cannot be underestimated.

If this trend continues, the international community may have to adjust to a new global landscape—one where a major power chooses selective engagement over open dialogue, causing a domino effect that could reshape alliances, strategies, and collective actions on a global scale.


The world is left to wonder: Is China intentionally walling itself off, or is this just a temporary diplomatic hiccup? Only time will tell, but the signs are increasingly ominous, and the stakes could hardly be higher.

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