Indonesian President Joko Widodo was heading to Beijing on Monday for a rare visit by a foreign leader under China's strict COVID-19 protocols and ahead of what could be the first overseas trip by Chinese President Xi Jinping since the start of the pandemic more than two years ago.
Widodo, host of the Group of 20 summit in mid-November, will meet Xi and Premier Li Keqiang on Tuesday and then hold talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Wednesday and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul on Thursday.
China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia are all members of the G-20, a group of 19 major nations and the European Union.
Xi, who has participated in international meetings only by video link during the pandemic, may end his COVID-19 isolation and attend the G-20 in person, analysts both inside and outside China said.
“The restrictions during the pandemic years have shrunk China's diplomatic activities,” said Zhu Feng, dean of the School of International Studies of Nanjing University. “China must face reality. Although the pandemic is still not over, it is a must for China to walk out and invite in.”
His appearance would likely come after his widely expected appointment this fall to a third five-year term as the head of the ruling Communist Party, enabling him to engage with other world leaders from a position of domestic strength.
“I think Xi will go to G-20 having secured his third term in office and in a strong political position,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.
Widodo is one of the few foreign leaders to visit China during the pandemic and the first since several attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia is a member of the G-20, and its invasion of Ukraine complicates the annual meeting, potentially putting Putin in the same room with U.S. President Joe Biden and European leaders who have condemned the invasion.
Xi, who traveled widely before the pandemic, has not left China since returning from a visit to Myanmar on Jan. 18, 2020. Five days later, the city of Wuhan was locked down as China took on the then-mysterious virus that caused the disease later named COVID-19.
The Chinese leader made his first trip outside mainland China about three weeks ago, visiting the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of the return of the former British colony to China.
World leaders also hold one-on-one meetings during the G-20, so it could provide an opportunity for Xi's first in-person meeting with Biden since the latter became U.S. president in January 2021.
“It is a rare opportunity to conduct face-to-face exchanges on a multilateral stage, which China needs very much,” said Su Hao, an international relations professor at China Foreign Affairs University.
Such meetings make it easier to reach consensus on complex global issues such as the current economic challenges, Su said. He added that the G-20 is an opportunity for Xi to advance proposals he has made on global development and security.
Widodo will be the second foreign leader after Biden to visit South Korea since Yoon's inauguration in May. They are expected to discuss boosting economic, security, infrastructure and defense industry cooperation.