Up Up and Away: Hu Leaves G8 Before it Begins

Hu

Gregory Chin
Senior Fellow, CIGI

Some air has just been let out of the G8 balloon. Chinese President Hu Jintao has left the G8 Summit in L’Aquila Italy, to return home to deal with domestic unrest in China’s far western autonomous region, Xinjiang – leaving him unable to attend the Day Two meetings between the G8 and the “G5” emerging economies. Hu has left behind Dai Bingguo, State Councilor to represent China’s top leader.

Dai Bingguo is no slouch inside the Party command. In addition to being the government executive that is most responsible for overseeing the country’s foreign affairs, Dai is the director of the office of the Party’s powerful Leading Small Group for Foreign Affairs, and the office of the Party’s Leading Group on National Security. He is a key official in the new Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the US and China, and a point person on China’s relations with Africa and the Arab world. Dai Bingguo is clearly a safe pair of hands both inside the Party and government hierarchy. Nonetheless, his arrival on the tarmac in L’Aquila will not have the same effect as the arrivals of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Brazilian President Lula de Silva, or even Mexican President Felipe Calderón or South African President Jacob Zuma.

What effect will Hu’s departure have on the G8 Summit? It is likely that the G5 Joint Statement that will be released later on Day One – at the same time that the G8 release their Joint Statement – was already drafted, reworked, and agreed to in advance of the Chinese President’s departure. This document will largely be the work of the foreign ministry “sherpas” anyways. More interesting will be the joint documents that will be released at the end of the Day Two G8/G5 meetings. Even here, some of the major statements will already have been worked out in advance, in particular the statements regarding the final report of the Heiligendamm Dialogue Process, the “structured dialogue” process between the G8 and the G5 that was launched at the German Summit back in 2007. The key plans on next steps for this dialogue process will also have been worked out in advance of Hu’s departure.

Hu has already accomplished his bilateral mission in visiting Italy, having led a delegation of over 200 Chinese business representatives to various Italian cities and signing close to US$3 billion in commercial deals, including a big new automotive joint venture agreement between Fiat and Guangzhou Automotive Corporation, which is also partnered with Honda and Toyota in southern China. China’s relations with Italy have expanded rapidly over the past ten years, as part of the EU’s expanding economic and cultural ties with the Chinese, and since 2004, under the “strategic partnership” signed by China and Italy. Interestingly, the Italians have outpaced the “G7” nation that they are usually compared with – Canada – in building stronger ties with a rising China. So Hu has locked up this part of this overall visit to Southern Europe, before going home.

Hu’s departure has more symbolic impact than tangible consequences, as most of the “major” agreements of the Italian Summit will already be sown up by the start of Day One. This says something about the real value-added of the G8 Summits at this point in world affairs. It raises the question of whether the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries are actually taking on the toughest issues when they meet face-to-face at this Summit? For the Italian hosts, Hu’s departure also puts a crimp in their efforts to portray the L’Aquila Summit as more than mere outreach, of real inclusion, in a substantive dialogue with the G5.

One of the unintended consequences of Hu’s departure for the G7/G8 may turn out to be whether Hu Jintao will reflect back on his shortened time in Italy, and ask himself whether he and China have lost anything by his departure. Chinese strategists may also ask what – in terms of tangible breakthroughs – has been the lost by the absence of their top leader at the Day Two meetings? It has now fallen to Mr. Dai to navigate whatever tangible issues will be discussed on Day Two and liaise on behalf of Mr. Hu. If the G8 Summit does not deliver some substantive results from the G8/G5 dialogue, new agreements that were not already pre-scripted, it will be difficult for the top Chinese leadership to see the cost in not be there. What could this also mean for the G8 if the other more powerful members of the G5, namely India and Brazil also start questioning the attendance of their top leaders?

It is quite possible that the leaders of “the 3” could place less priority on attending future G8 Summits if this mechanism continues to under-deliver on substantive results. This could be especially so if the next host – Canada – does not come up with a compelling reason for them to attend. What could be the implication? Perhaps the reality of domestic political realities and challenges is starting to catch up with the international Club of traditional powers. And the decision of the Chinese leader to abruptly return home to deal with more pressing governance issues, and leave behind the leaders of the old powers, may be the pin prick on the balloon of the old Club.

Disclaimer: This blog is solely intended to spur discussion, while the opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI, Chatham House or their respective Boards of Directors.

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