Spat with Justin Trudeau upsets Xi Jinping’s choreographed return to limelight

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Xi Jinping’s carefully choreographed return to the global stage took an unprecedented turn on the final day of the G20 summit in Bali as he upbraided Canada’s prime minister for allegedly leaking the contents of a conversation between the two leaders.

“Everything we discussed was leaked . . . that’s not appropriate,” China’s president told Justin Trudeau through his interpreter, according to a video of the incident that was posted online.

Xi’s trip to Indonesia was only the second time he had ventured overseas since Covid-19 erupted out of central China in January 2020.

Since he came to power a decade ago, even Xi’s private interactions with foreign leaders have been tightly scripted. Accounts of the president’s diplomatic meetings by China’s foreign ministry and state media are also carefully crafted, with selective editing of foreign leaders’ remarks to emphasise their agreement with Xi on his most important agenda items.

In his angry exchange with Trudeau, Xi was referring to media reports about an earlier conversation at the G20 summit, which concluded on Wednesday. After that first brief encounter, which was initiated by Trudeau in a group setting, Canadian and international media outlets, citing people familiar with the exchange, reported that the prime minister had expressed concerns about alleged Chinese interference in Canadian elections.

“That’s not the way the conversation was conducted,” Xi added, accusing Trudeau of a lack of “sincerity”.

“In Canada we believe in free and open and frank dialogue, and we will continue to work constructively together,” replied Trudeau, who did not appear to be accompanied by any aides or a translator. “But there will be things we will disagree on.”

Xi then ended the conversation with a curt handshake and the two leaders walked away from each other.

Apart from a trip by German chancellor Olaf Scholz to Beijing this month, the G20 marked the first time since 2019 that Xi has interacted in person with western leaders, who were determined to drive a wedge between Russia and China. Xi has refused to condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

While Xi did not criticise Russia’s conduct in Ukraine explicitly at the G20, he did use the event to try and repair long-strained relations with the US and many of its allies, with the prominent exceptions of Canada and India.

Xi and US president Joe Biden met for more than three hours on Monday in their first face-to-face encounter since Biden became president. The leaders appeared to at least stabilise the two countries’ rocky relationship, with Beijing agreeing to resume communication on several issues frozen since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August.

Xi also held official meetings at the G20 with the leaders of France, Italy, Spain, Holland, Australia and South Korea, but not with Trudeau.

Beijing was enraged by Ottawa’s detention of a prominent telecommunications executive in December 2018 at Washington’s request for alleged violations of US export sanctions. Xi’s administration retaliated by detaining two Canadians, one of them a former diplomat, in a stand-off that was not resolved until September 2021.

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