BEIJING, May 28 (UPI) -- When Hu Jintao left Beijing for Moscow on Monday, China's new president and communist party leader not only emerged from the long shadow cast by his predecessor Jiang Zemin, but also signaled significant shifts in the country's foreign relations.
Hu's foray onto the international stage, a trip that ends June 6, includes visits to Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. It is his first as head of state and was expected to include spearheading an effort to revive flagging interest in the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
A key feature in Hu's trip represents a major departure from mainland foreign policy dating back to the mid 1950s. Once proclaiming itself as champion of the developing world, China has finally agreed to attend and participate in the Group of Eight industrialized nations summit in Evian, France, that starts June 1.
Liu Guchang, vice minister of Foreign Affairs, tried to downplay the significance of China's participation. In a special briefing for reporters last Wednesday, Liu said China "was one of more than ten developing countries invited to the event by French president Jacques Chirac."
"China is still the world's largest developing country and not qualified for G-8 membership," Liu noted.
However, Liu's statement belies the fact this nation's 1.3 billion people encompass a disparate range of economic development.
In its poorest regions China seems scarcely beyond the Bronze Age. But it is shifting from a rural to urban centered population and construction of infrastructure is booming along with a rise in consumerism in cities that belong to the Age of Information, led by Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai. In terms of market interdependency, China is becoming a power to be reckoned with.
Robert S. Ross, a Boston College political science professor connected with the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University, told Beijing reporters earlier this month a large part of the country, an estimated 300 million or more people, had reached a critical mass with new capabilities expressed in market power that provides influence in regional politics.
Hu Jintao's coming first, small participation in the G-8's North-South dialog in Evian reflects China's continued evolution away from its Maoist past to accepting that access to the world's leading economies is in its best interest.
Wang Yizhou, deputy director at the World Politics and Economy Institute, part of the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told United Press International, "right now we have a G-8, someday it may be a G-9."
He gave two reasons why China accepted Chirac's invitation to attend the G-8 meeting after turning down similar offers from Germany in 1999 and Japan in 2000.
"China is now in World Trade Organization, which makes us a full member of the global economic order," Wang said.
"The Chinese perception of this organization being a club for rich countries is changing," he said. "The G-8 already includes Russia as a member, a country with one-third the GNP of China."
China did not have a definite timetable for China's formal participation, but, Wang said, "Perhaps in 3-4 years we will join the organization as Russia did."
One of the biggest foreign policy challenges for Hu Jintao is resuscitating the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and making it into a meaningful regional institution for dealing with shared security issues and developing it as a counterweight to the United States presence in Asia.
Originally established as the Shanghai Forum in 1996, the SCO was created by China and Russia, together with the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan joined in 2001.
It was formed to settle lingering border disputes following the breakup of the Soviet Union. At the time Chinese president Jiang Zemin and Russia's Vladimir Putin announced the two countries had created a "strategic partnership."
After quickly and amicably resolving problems along 3,000 mile (4,600 km) of boundary lines, the two presidents shifted the focus on bringing Central Asian states into a treaty organization tackling other issues shared across borders, from terrorism to market integration.
Dr. Chu Shulong, professor at the School of Public Policy and Management at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, described the SCO as "an institutional channel where China seeks help from other countries in fighting against the three evil forces inside and outside country: separatists, terrorists and religious extremism."
Politically, Chu noted "its significance is on tactical, not strategic terms. It is useful tool for all member countries to cooperate in coordinating on security."
In an email interview with Professor June Teufel Dreyer, chair of the political science department at the University of Miami in Coral Gables Florida told UPI "the organization has diminished significantly after Sept. 11."
She said, "There has not been much regional solidarity exhibited, and events in 2002, such as Putin agreeing to ending the ABM treaty, Russia achieving equal status if not membership in attending NATO meetings, and Central Asian countries giving the United States basing rights, are things the Chinese consider inimical to their best interests."
Thus far in 2003 a Chinese diplomat has been killed in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan where the SCO set up its regional counter-terrorism headquarters, and a bus load of 20 merchants returning to China were killed in the same country.
UPI asked Vice Minister Liu what China hoped to achieve when the SCO convenes its summit meeting in Moscow on May 29. For the Chinese, he said a top priority was for the member states to agree on a common ground for development of the organization and on the establishment of a SCO secretariat in Beijing before the end of the year with a Chinese secretary general.
It is apparent China faces an uphill struggle to make the SCO a viable regional institution, let alone a strategic counterweight to the United States. Many analysts see the outcome of the Moscow summit being a crossroads for the group.
China watchers and foreign policy analysts alike will be closely monitoring Hu's performance during his first visit abroad as head of state. It is a test he dare not fail.
This is a critical juncture for China to demonstrate competence and restore confidence worldwide on a spate of pressing issues including its stance on post war Iraq, diffusing tensions involving North Korea and accountability with severe acute respiratory syndrome. Any miscues or missed chances by Hu will hurt his standing both internationally and in domestic politics.