(Bloomberg) — China’s new prime minister is taking his first steps into the global spotlight this week, thanks in part to President Xi Jinping’s surprise disapproval of a major gathering of world leaders in India.
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Li Qiang will first attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, for extended talks on trade, climate change and global security. From there, he will head to a Group of 20 summit in New Delhi, becoming the first Chinese prime minister to participate in this annual talk since it began in 2008.
That will give the 64-year-old former Xi aide a rare opportunity to connect with some of the most powerful leaders in the world. He will have the chance to shake hands with President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, although it is unclear whether he will personally meet with either leader, both of whose countries are currently embroiled in diplomatic clashes with Beijing.
Li will likely follow Xi’s instructions as he maintains China’s presence at the G-20 table, said Sun Yun, a senior fellow and director of the Washington-based Stimson Center’s China program. “I don’t expect him to announce anything important diplomatically or from a security point of view,” she said. “Those are reserved for Xi.”
Where Li could add value is in providing details on Beijing’s economic policies, Sun noted. China’s economy is reeling 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.
Since taking office in March, Li has focused on bringing in foreign companies. Shortly after being sworn in, he told visiting foreign executives, including Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook, to “have a long-term view” of the country amid the challenges.
A few days later, at the Boao Forum for Asia, Li sought to allay global business fears that a war over Taiwan was imminent, describing China as “an anchor for world peace and development.” He delivered the keynote speech at a World Economic Forum conference in Tianjin in June, warning against efforts by the US and its allies to reduce risks from China.
On his first overseas trip as prime minister to Germany in June, Li was awarded an agreement by Chancellor Olaf Scholz to deepen cooperation on manufacturing, electric vehicles and green finance. That came just weeks before Berlin took a more cautious stance on China, which characterized the world’s second-largest economy as a “partner, competitor and systemic rival.”
While Li is in Indonesia, he is expected to visit the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed line, the national newspaper Kompas reported, citing the train operator. That project is part of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative and is an example of how Beijing hopes to use infrastructure projects to expand its influence with countries around the world.
While Li’s debut with the G-20 will increase his global visibility, it is unlikely to increase his political clout. His premiership already has less authority than his predecessors, as Xi gives himself more control over policy-making previously dominated by the No. 2, while shrinking the role of government agencies.
Li has a long history as second fiddle to Xi, including as chief of staff in coastal Zhejiang in the early 2000s. Shortly after Xi came to power in 2012, Li was named governor of the wealthy province – an early sign of favor which he has with China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
The business community gave good feedback to Li in that position, embracing his promise to reduce government interference in the economy and allow private companies to enter more sectors.
Li may be less well received by some in Shanghai due to the punishing two-month lockdown he ordered last year to contain the spread of the coronavirus. While he initially took a lighter approach as party boss in Shanghai during the pandemic, his strict implementation of Xi’s orders to eradicate the virus later sparked rare protests against the Chinese leader and damaged the city’s economy.
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That didn’t stop Xi from promoting his old lieutenant, and Li has since positioned the cabinet he presides primarily as a body for carrying out his boss’s instructions. He also seems to avoid any perception that he is a challenge to the Supreme Leader, for example by keeping a low profile during domestic travel.
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” with reports of Xi skipping the summit.
“Li is Xi’s trusted assistant,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “Xi is probably confident that Li will not overshadow him given his calm personality.”
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