Some analysts see Beijing's substitution of Xi by Premier Li Qiang as evidence of the work needed to resolve longstanding frosty relations between the two Asian powers. A senior member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling party even questioned whether the snub revealed China's resentment with India's economic rise.
Others think the cold shoulder — the first time a Chinese president has not attended a G20 summit outright since 2008 — was meant for the G20 itself. After all, Xi did attend the conference of BRICS emerging-market nations in South Africa last month.
China snub a warning to West
"Xi's skipping the West-heavy club of G20 right after attending the BRICS summit may be a visual illustration of Xi's narrative of 'East is rising, and the West is falling,'" Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University told news agency Reuters this week.
"Beijing is clearly saying 'You need us to stay relevant,'" Holger Görg, a researcher in international trade and development at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel), told DW. "Xi is only interested in taking part as long as China plays a leading role, which it isn't at the G20."
Set up in 1999, the Group of 20, or G20, comprises 19 of the world's largest economies, including China and India, as well as the European Union. G20 summits have been held annually since 2008, when the global financial crisis unfolded.
The talks are widely seen as helping to tackle short-term global economic issues, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the group faces major challenges in tackling longer-term issues such as climate change.
A chance for India to shine
Despite the Chinese snub, this weekend's summit is a chance for India to show it is a reliable world power, balancing both its traditional relationships with the West and new groupings like BRICS.
"We're in a moment where multilateral diplomacy is being reinvented and this is an area where New Delhi has been particularly strong," Ian Lesser, vice president and executive director (Brussels) at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank, told DW.
Even so, Lesser doesn't expect the talks to deliver many actionable policy initiatives, but said the tone of the final joint communique would reveal "a great deal about whether the international system stands in terms of power and influence."
World leaders, including US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, will attend the summit, at New Delhi's new Pragati Maidan exhibition center. Russia will be represented by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The talks are expected to focus on the outlook for global economic growth, as recession looms in many countries, including Germany, and as China's post-COVID rebound has disappointed so far.
Joint position on Ukraine war remains elusive
G20 leaders have failed to agree on a consensus position denouncing Russia's aggression. India has remained neutral on the conflict and become the largest purchaser of Russian oil. However, it backed a more powerful statement agreed upon at the Bali G20 summit last year, describing how the war was causing "immense human suffering" and "exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy."
The text has, however, been blocked by Russia and China, leaving Indian negotiators to either tone down the statement or allow its presidency to end without a final communique — for the first time since 2008.
Deep divisions also remain over the phaseout of fossil fuels, despite the worsening effects of climate change. At a G20 energy meeting in July, ministers failed to even mention coal, the dirty fuel that remains a key energy source for economies like India and China.
The two powers are among the biggest global polluters but argue that historical contributors in the West need to take a much bigger responsibility for the climate crisis.
India urges improved role for Africa
More recently, India has prided itself in being a voice for the Global South — a term to describe typically poorer nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America that are often underrepresented in global affairs. New Delhi believes it can be a bridge between the developed and developing world.
New Delhi is also pushing for the African Union — which represents 55 African nations — to become a full member of the G20. The plan has widespread support, including from Biden who said in December that the move had "been a long time in coming." But some existing G20 members are reticent, including Australia and Indonesia.
"Africa is becoming more important economically and geopolitically, but many existing members will have their own vested interests and will be asking whether the G20 ought to be the format for showcasing Africa," Lesser said.
Despite their hopes, Görg is unconvinced that G20 membership will translate to "real political power" for African countries, which could see them fall further into the hands of China and Russia, who have played a leading role in development in the region in recent years.
In an attempt to play catch up with China's longstanding engagement with Africa, EU leaders plan to step up their outreach to African countries on the sidelines of the New Delhi talks, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday.
Citing sources in Brussels, Bloomberg said the 27-nation bloc aimed to show that it is serious about redefining its partnership with Africa, despite the legacy of colonialism.
Edited by: Uwe Hessler