China’s President Xi suddenly missed a big BRICS meeting.

China's President Xi suddenly missed a big BRICS meeting.

China’s President Xi suddenly missed a big BRICS meeting.  Chinese leader Xi Jinping skipped a business forum of the BRICS economic group in South Africa on Tuesday, instead dispatching his commerce minister to deliver a fiery speech condemning US hegemony.

Xi, who arrived in Johannesburg on Monday for the annual BRICS summit of key emerging economies, was scheduled to deliver a speech at the forum’s business forum alongside the leaders of India, Brazil, and South Africa on Tuesday.

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However, the Chinese leader did not attend the event, and Beijing had no announcement or explanation.

Instead, Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao delivered his prepared statement, peppered with thinly veiled jabs at the United States that have become a staple of Xi’s international speeches.

In his statement, Xi urged the international community not to sleepwalk “into the abyss of a new cold war.”

Without explicitly naming the United States, the statement claimed that “some country, obsessed with maintaining its hegemony, has gone to great lengths to cripple emerging markets and developing countries.”

“Whoever is rapidly developing becomes the target of containment. Whoever is attempting to follow up becomes the target of an obstruction. But this is fruitless,” it continued.

Xi was the only head of the BRICS nations not to attend the forum. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, who could not attend in person due to an international arrest warrant for his brutal invasion of Ukraine, delivered virtual remarks.

After bypassing the forum, Xi joined the leaders of Brazil and India and the Russian foreign minister for a dinner hosted by Ramaphosa.

Long-term observers of Chinese foreign policy were puzzled by Xi’s unexpected absence from the forum, which was noted by correspondents present.

Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific program, remarked, “It is extremely unusual for a Chinese leader to arrive in a country hosting a multilateral meeting – especially one that China is deeply invested in, such as BRICS – and not attend the opening event.”

Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, described Xi’s absence as “highly unusual,” adding that Chinese leaders rarely deviate from the script at such high-profile events.

“It appears that something caused Xi to leave the meeting. It could have been a health emergency or an urgent matter that demanded his attention,” he explained. “It is also possible that Xi skipped the event for a different reason, perhaps in response to summit developments.”

Earlier on Tuesday, as part of his state visit to South Africa, Xi met with Ramaphosa before accompanying his host and other visiting dignitaries for dinner.

“The fact that Xi omitted his speech at this meeting but attended other engagements before and after this one suggests that he was distracted by something pressing during this window. We do not know the reason at this time,” Hart added.

Neither Chinese state media nor diplomats have explained Xi’s absence. Instead, they have “even gone so far as to cover up Xi’s absence,” according to Hart.

The state news agency Xinhua did not mention Xi’s absence or that Wang, the minister of commerce, delivered his speech.

A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Hua Chunying, tweeted hours after the event, “Xi delivered a speech at the closing ceremony of the BRICS Business Forum 2023,” along with a photo of the packed conference room.

At a regular news briefing on Wednesday, another ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, sidestepped a query regarding Xi’s absence from the BRICS business forum. Wang instead read a summary of Xi’s prepared speech that was extensively distributed by state media.

When another reporter inquired about Xi, Wang responded, “I’ve already addressed the issue. We are optimistic that this BRICS summit will be productive.”

According to experts, Beijing will likely never justify Xi’s absence.

“The (Chinese Communist Party) is under no obligation to explain why its foreign minister was replaced or why its senior leader skipped the BRICS Business Forum. “Anything can be a state secret,” said German Marshall Fund’s Glaser.

China removed Qin Gang from his position as foreign minister last month after he had been missing for weeks. Qin was abruptly supplanted by his predecessor Wang Yi, with no explanation. Since then, Qin has yet to be heard from in public.

Hart of the CSIS noted that this upheaval directly affected the ongoing BRICS summit. Qin was scheduled to attend BRICS preparatory meetings this summer, but his absence necessitated his replacement.

“The lack of transparency in Beijing is not unexpected. When it comes to personnel matters and sensitive issues, Chinese officials restrict the flow of information, according to Hart.

“Abnormalities like Xi’s disappearance are yet another reminder that Beijing can be a black box.”

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