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Chinese leader's withdrawal knocks G-8 meeting down a notch

Hu Jintao's absence is particularly conspicuous because the summit is to address issues in which China plays a big role in the problem and solution, including climate change and the economic meltdown.

July 09, 2009|Henry Chu and Christi Parsons

CHIETI, ITALY, AND L'AQUILA, ITALY — The shutters clicked and the cameras whirred as the world's top leaders landed in the Italian countryside and lighted up the earthquake-ravaged town of L'Aquila with the highest-wattage star power the place has ever seen.

But the big buzz Wednesday didn't revolve around who showed up for this week's G-8 summit. It was about who hadn't.

That would be the leader of the world's most-populous nation, China's President Hu Jintao, who decided to pull out of the event to deal with an explosive crisis back home in the protest-ridden province of Xinjiang. Deadly clashes broke out this week between the dominant Han ethnic group and minority Uighurs.

Hu's last-minute withdrawal had the instant effect of knocking the summit down a notch on the significance scale. It didn't matter that China technically isn't a member of the Group of 8 industrialized nations and had been invited to participate only in second-day discussions today along with a number of other nations.

The sudden sense of diminished expectation in L'Aquila underscored once again just how crucial Beijing has become as an actor on the world stage.

And it has raised questions as to the relevance of an elite club of nations that doesn't include China. After all, if the G-8 can be dealt such a major blow by the absence of a leader whose country isn't a member, then why isn't that country a member to begin with?

Analysts called Hu's empty seat at the table particularly conspicuous because this week's summit is set to address so many issues in which China plays a large role in both the problem and the solution, including climate change and global economic recovery.

Yes, the rest of the Chinese delegation will stick around in L'Aquila and represent Beijing. And yes, the communiques emanating from the summit were mostly hammered out and agreed to in advance by diplomats working behind the scenes, meaning that their substance -- or lack of it -- will remain largely unchanged.

But both physically and psychologically, those declarations will not bear the imprimatur of China's top leader, even if someone else is there to sign on the dotted line on Beijing's behalf.

"Having a delegation there is not the same as having the head of state," said Paola Subacchi, an expert in international economics at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. "It's just more symbolic and the fact that in the photo, Hu Jintao won't be there."

Hu's presence was certainly felt in April at a similar summit in London involving an expanded group, the G-20, that does include China as a full-fledged member. Beijing's participation was considered vital to the debate over how to haul the world out of its current recession.

Observers breathlessly tracked relations between Hu and President Obama, two men whose countries many think hold the key to how the world will shape up in the 21st century.

The Sino-U.S. relationship is so important that some analysts have dubbed it the "G-2," the really elite club that matters most.

"It really looked like those were the two main poles at the London summit, and it would have been interesting to see if the same dynamic appeared and crystallized at this summit," Subacchi said.

In one much-talked-about moment in London, Obama pulled Hu aside for a private chat to try to resolve a stubborn sticking point in a joint statement on tax havens. It worked.

No such moment of serendipitous magic with Hu will be possible in L'Aquila.

"The one thing that will be missing is the potential for unforeseen breakthroughs that are the product of face-to-face interaction," said Charles Kupchan, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Obama and various leaders can walk into the corner, and they can do business in a way that staffers cannot. That will be missing."

Kupchan said that whatever Beijing's delegation signs on to at this week's summit will still carry the full authority of the Chinese government. More so than with many other nations, China's Communist regime speaks with one voice on foreign affairs.

But Hu's absence brings up the question of whether the G-8 is relevant without China, arguably the world's second-most-important economy after the U.S.

Not just China, but other emerging powers such as India and Brazil are beginning to be seen as integral parts of the equation as the G-8 strays beyond strictly economic matters to tackle geopolitical issues, analysts say.

"The international system is in the midst of transition, moving from an anachronistic post-World War II structure to something that's more in keeping with the 21st century," Kupchan said.

"I don't think that anybody denies, if you're discussing stabilizing the international economy, dealing with climate change, stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, that Beijing has to be at the table. The question is how do you get there?"

With Hu's sudden pullout, the answer, it seems, will not be found in L'Aquila.

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