Xi Protege Steps Onto World Stage After China Leader’s G-20 Snub

(Bloomberg) -- China’s new premier is taking his first steps into the global spotlight this week, in part thanks to President Xi Jinping’s surprise snub of a key gathering of world leaders in India.

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Li Qiang will first attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathering in Jakarta, Indonesia, for wide-ranging talks on trade, climate change and global security. From there, he’ll head to a Group of 20 summit in New Delhi, becoming the first Chinese premier to join that annual huddle since it began in 2008.

That will give the 64-year-old former Xi aide a rare opportunity to rub elbows with some of the most-powerful leaders on the planet. He’ll have the chance to shake hands with President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though it’s unclear whether he’ll meet privately with either leader, whose nations are both currently embroiled in diplomatic spats with Beijing.

Li will likely follow Xi’s instructions as he maintains China’s presence at the table at the G-20, said Sun Yun, a senior fellow and director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center. “I don’t expect him to announce anything significant diplomatically or security-wise,” she said. “Those are reserved for Xi.”

Where Li could add value is providing details about Beijing’s economic policies, Sun noted. China’s economy is faltering after years of pandemic-induced isolation and volatile policymaking, a slowdown that Biden has called a “ticking time bomb” for the rest of the world.

Speaking Wednesday at the Asean summit, Li said China’s economy is on track to hit its annual growth target of around 5%, reiterating a view he shared in June. He also urged leaders of Southeast Asian nations to avoid forming confrontational blocs, in a meeting that also involved Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Business Friendly

Since taking office in March, Li has focused on wooing foreign businesses. Soon after being sworn in, he told visiting foreign executives including Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook to “take a long-term view” on the nation amid the challenges.

Then at the Boao Forum for Asia a few days later, Li sought to dispel fear among the global business community that a war over Taiwan is imminent, describing China as “an anchor for world peace and development.” He gave the keynote speech at a World Economic Forum conference in Tianjin in June, warning against the efforts by the US and its allies to “de-risk” from China.

During his first overseas trip as premier to Germany in June, Li secured an agreement from Chancellor Olaf Scholz to deepen cooperation in manufacturing, electric vehicles and green finance. That came just weeks before Berlin adopted a more cautious China stance, which charactered the world’s second-largest economy as a “partner, competitor and systemic rival.”

See: Asean Latest: China’s Li Urges Asia Against Bloc Confrontation

Li kicked off this trip by saying at a reception in Jakarta on Tuesday that China was willing to step up cooperation with Indonesia in areas such as green energy and the digital economy. He is also expected to visit the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail line. That project is part of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative and an example of the way Beijing hopes to use infrastructure projects to expand its influence with nations around the world.

Trusted Lieutenant

While Li’s debut at the G-20 will increase his global visibility, it’s unlikely to boost his political influence. His premiership already carries less authority than his predecessors enjoyed, as Xi gives himself more control over policymaking previously dominated by the No. 2, while diminishing the role of state agencies.

Li has a long history of playing second-fiddle to Xi, including serving as his chief of staff in the coastal Zhejiang in the early 2000s. Shortly after Xi took power in 2012, Li was appointed governor of the wealthy province — an early sign of the favor he holds with China’s most-powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

The business community provided good feedback about Li in that job, embracing his vow to slash government interference in the economy and allow private firms to enter more sectors.

Li may be less fondly regarded by some in Shanghai for the punishing two-month lockdown he ordered last year to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Although he initially used a lighter touch as Shanghai party boss during the pandemic, his stringent implementation of Xi’s orders to wipe out the virus later led to rare protests aimed at the Chinese leader and battered the city’s economy.

More: EU Seizes on Putin and Xi’s G-20 Absence to Engage Africa

That didn’t prevent Xi from promoting his long-time lieutenant, and Li has since positioned the cabinet he chairs mainly as a body for carrying out his boss’s instructions. He also appears to be trying to avoid any perception he’s a challenge to the paramount leader, for example by keeping a low profile on domestic trips.

Now, the G-20 summit will put Li side-by-side with some of the planet’s most-powerful figures such as Modi and Biden, who said he was “disappointed” at reports Xi would skip the summit.

“Li is Xi’s trusted aide,” said Alfred Wu, an ­associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “Xi likely feels confident that Li won’t overshadow him given his low-key personality.”

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(Updates with Li Qiang’s remarks on economic growth.)

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