• Bloomberg

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Chinese diplomats have informed officials from the Group of 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 G20 envoys known as sherpas in Florence last month. Chinese envoys cited China’s COVID-19 protocols, which can include quarantine mandates for returning travelers, as a reason Xi did not intend to go to Rome, three of the people said.

The people said there had been no communications on the matter since, and Italy, which is hosting the G20 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 Oct. 30.

The Italian government declined to comment. China’s embassies in London and Rome did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Xi hasn’t been out of the country since mid-January 2020, the longest stint of any G20 leader, although he has virtually attended meetings including a gathering of BRICS nations last month and held dozens of individual calls with counterparts.

The G20 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 labor to semiconductors and energy. China’s position is central to many of those issues and 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 U.S. 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.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Xi spoke on the phone last month in a conversation that yielded little and in which the Chinese president did not take up an offer for a potential in-person meeting. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will however meet with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Switzerland this week.

The G20 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 skeptical that Xi would attend COP26, which is being held in Glasgow, should he miss the Rome summit. The U.K. government, which is hosting the climate meeting, has been hopeful he will show up. A person familiar with the arrangements for COP26 said it was still to be confirmed if Xi would go.

The G20 timing is also potentially delicate for Xi at home. China’s ruling party will convene for the first time in more than a year in November, laying the ground for a twice-a-decade party congress in 2022 that could extend his term as leader.

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