Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 15

Hu Jintao has great expectations for his so-called “summer diplomacy” as the Chinese President and commander-in-chief is looking for a foreign-policy achievement to bolster his status in China and overseas. In the first week of July, Hu was in Russia and Kazakhstan – to attend a summit of the leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) nations – and Scotland, where he was due to participate in the annual conclave of the G8 nations.

In recent months, Hu, who heads the Communist Party’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA), has been criticized by political rivals – especially members of the “Shanghai Faction” – for a couple of diplomatic setbacks. These include growing difficulties with Japan and the U.S., and Beijing’s apparent failure to anticipate the seriousness and force of Washington’s “anti-China containment policy.” Critics charge Beijing was unprepared for the change of regime in Kyrgyzstan in March, which Chinese cadres characterized as an instance of U.S. mischief making. (Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing reportedly made a self-criticism for his poor intelligence on this sudden development.) Since Kyrgyzstan shares a common border with Xinjiang, the Hu leadership is fearful that pro-U.S. forces in the Central Asian state may “make trouble” for China.

Internationally, the most eye-catching event of Hu’s diplomatic outing will be his participation together with the leaders of India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico – who will all have “observer” status – in the G8 Summit Outreach in Scotland. At the G8 conclave, Hu will continue to beat back pressure from the U.S. and other Western powers for China to further liberalize its economy, especially appreciating the value of the renminbi.

However, the main purpose of Hu’s whirlwind tour has to do with geopolitical and defense issues – and there is little doubt that Moscow and the Kazakh capital of Astana will be the focus of his initiatives. Within Beijing’s foreign policy establishment, it is well recognized that if former president Jiang Zemin could be called pro-U.S., then Hu is pro-Russian. Hu is relying heavily on Russia for political support as well as military hardware to repel the “anti-China containment policy” which he thinks will be a major foreign policy objective of the second Bush administration. Recent “anti-China” moves by the Americans have included the following: Washington beefing up its military alliance with Japan and stationing more aircraft carriers and jet fighters in Japanese bases; Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s warnings, issued in Singapore, about the dangers of a fast-expanding People’s Liberation Army (PLA); and a spate of “U.S.-instigated” instability in Central Asian states (including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), which are in China’s northwestern backyard. Washington’s strong lobbying was also responsible for the European Union’s decision to postpone lifting its 16 year-old embargo on arms sales to China.

In a joint statement on “the international order in the 21st century,” which was issued after a three-hour-long summit between Hu and counterpart Vladimir Putin on July 1, both leaders took a thinly veiled swipe at the U.S. The document stressed the opposition of the two “strategic partners” to attempts by any country to “monopolize and dominate international affairs.” Hu and Putin criticized efforts by unnamed countries to “divide states between leaders and led,” which appeared to refer to alleged attempts by the U.S. to “destabilize” dictatorial regimes in Central Asia and to spread democracy worldwide. The Chinese leader added in a press conference that both countries agreed to “further strengthen strategic cooperation, expand military exchanges and cooperation, and enthusiastically do well in the first China-Russian joint military exercise [due next month].” [1]

Given the unlikelihood of China securing military technology from the West any time soon, Beijing is anxious to procure more sophisticated, updated versions of the fighter jets, submarines and other hardware that China has been buying from Russia the past several years. Up until now, Moscow has refused to provide the latest, top-of-the-line models to China. Beijing’s bottom line is that Moscow must make available to China at least the same models that the latter has been giving India. The PLA also wants more co-production on Chinese soil based on Russian technology and patents. A milestone in Sino-Russian cooperation was reached in early June, when the foreign ministers from China, Russia and India met in Vladivostok to establish a so-called “strategic triangular relationship” among the three powers of the Asia-Pacific Region. The Beijing leadership is hopeful that after this development, the level of weapons Beijing has been buying from Russia should be at least on par with those that the latter has sold to India.

A hint of whether Putin and his generals – some of whom are still suspicious of China’s long-term military goals – might succumb to Hu’s lobbying may come during the much-anticipated Chinese-Russian joint war game involving 8,000 personnel from both sides. If only for the consumption of leaders in the U.S., Japan and Taiwan, the Chinese leadership is keen to display some of China’s most formidable weapons – both domestically made and imported from Russia – during this first-ever Sino-Russian maneuver. According to Beijing-based Russia expert Zhou Liang, the upcoming drills would be guided by “deep-seated strategic consideration” on both sides regarding three issues: growing U.S. influence in Central Asia; the Korean crisis; and the Taiwan Strait crisis. Zhou pointed to the possibility that should China and the U.S. go to war over Taiwan, Moscow would help to pin down some American forces in other parts of the region. [2]

During his brief trip to Moscow in May to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the defeat of fascism, Hu already made clear his intention of seeking a quasi-alliance relationship with Russia. For example, Hu recalled how Chinese and Soviet people had established a “life-and-death friendship” in the final years of WWII, when they fought side by side against both Japanese and German forces. Hu’s carefully chosen words in Moscow showed the high expectations he had of closer China-Russian ties acting as a counter-balance to U.S. preponderance in Asia, Europe, and now, Central Asia.

Of perhaps even more significance for Chinese diplomacy was the SCO summit –incorporating China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – which witnessed an intriguing expansion of the bloc. When the Tulip Revolution triumphed in Kyrgyzstan, which resulted in the overthrow of former president Askar Akayev, a close ally of Beijing’s, many Western observers thought the SCO’s days were numbered. After all, U.S. troops are now stationed in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and American influence is growing by the day.

However, the Hu leadership flexed China’s muscle by coming to the aid of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, when that country was rocked by instability in May. Shunned by the West, Karimov received a hero’s welcome during his “thank you” trip to Beijing the same month. The SCO conclave in Astana could be interpreted as a “show of force” – especially by the Chinese and Russians – that this organization originally conceived of as a counterweight to NATO is very much alive. An unprecedented number of neighboring countries, including Pakistan, India, Iran and Mongolia, will be taking part in the Astana summit as observers. As a Beijing source close to the diplomatic establishment put it, “China wants to demonstrate to the Americans that it has ways and means to not only maintain its foothold in Central Asia but also promote Central Asia’s link with South Asia.” The source added that the first-time participation of Pakistan and India has enabled the SCO to expand its functions and geopolitical clout beyond being just a small club focused on fighting Muslim separatist forces in the six original members. And Beijing has played a key role in facilitating the limited but significant improvement in ties between New Delhi and Islamabad.

As Professor Xu Xiaotian of the China Institute on Contemporary International Relations put it, the addition of Iran, Pakistan and India would make the SCO “the biggest and most populous security and trade-oriented organization in the Euro-Asian land mass.” Xu added that the SCO was in a position to frustrate plans by the U.S. to gain further control of Central Asia. However, the jury is still out as to whether the expanded SCO may function more effectively. For the past few years, Central Asian states such as the four SCO members have been playing the major powers and patrons – China, Russia and the U.S. – one off against the others, with the objective of extracting the maximum level of aid especially from the U.S. and China. And since SCO decisions must be based on the unanimous support of all members, the full-scale participation of India and Pakistan may bog down deliberations on a whole range of issues. While Hu, who only started to honcho Chinese diplomacy since early 2003, has done surprisingly well in this sphere, he will need to display more charisma and savvy to make a go of the SCO.


1. “China and Russian leaders agree on deepening cooperation,” China News Service, July 1, 2005; “Hu, Putin map world order,” New China News Agency, July 2, 2005.

2. Zhou Liang, “Deep-seated strategic considerations behind the China-Russia joint exercises,” New Beijing Post (Beijing), June 26, 2005.