x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

China's leader-in-waiting to return after two-week absence

Vice president Xi had been out of the public eye for almost two weeks, missing meetings with foreign leaders that included the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, prompting rumours of ill health or worse.

SHANGHAI // China's leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, will attend a meeting with Southeast Asian nations later this week, the foreign ministry announced yesterday, signalling his return to diplomatic duties after skipping a series of events with foreign dignitaries.

Vice president Xi had been out of the public eye for almost two weeks, missing meetings with foreign leaders that included the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, prompting rumours of ill health or worse.

Mr Xi reappeared on Saturday at a Beijing university. He will now be heading to the southern region of Guangxi to attend a trade fair for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which opens on Friday, the foreign ministry said.

"Vice president Xi Jinping and Asean leaders will attend the opening ceremony and other important activities," the ministry said.

Other leaders due to attend the trade meeting will include the president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, the Lao prime minister, Thongsin Thammavong and Vietnam's prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, it said.

China's relationships with some Asean members, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, have been strained lately due to rising tensions over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Chinese government officials have repeatedly refused to say what had happened to Mr Xi, fuelling speculation that has included him supposedly suffering a heart attack, a stroke, emergency cancer surgery and even an attempted assassination.

Sources said Mr Xi had hurt his back while swimming earlier this month and that he had been obeying doctors' orders to get bed rest and undergo physiotherapy. The health of state leaders is typically considered a state secret in China.

Beijing has yet to announce formally a date for the party's five-yearly congress, at which Xi is tipped to replace Hu Jintao as party chief, although it is still expected to be held in mid or late October at the earliest.

In March next year, he is expected formally to take over the reins of the world's second-largest economy.