The G-8 and Hu Jintao's Absence
July 8, 2009
Q1: How will the G-8 summit in L’Aquila be altered by the absence of President Hu Jintao of China?
A1: At a time when many have said that a G-2 consisting of the United States and China is at the center of global challenges and the G-20, Hu Jintao’s absence leaves a significant vacuum that the remaining players will be hard pressed to fill. Indeed, a major focus of this summit, as the G-8 undergoes an “identity crisis” on its current and future role, was bringing in other nations, particularly the “plus 5” nations of Brazil, India, Mexico, South Africa, and China, to make it more relevant. For many members of the G-8, China is first among equals in that expanded list. While many aspects of G-8 statements are negotiated in the days leading up to the summit, critical language and details can be hammered out in last minute negotiations and discussions among key leaders. Summits also provide critical opportunities for leaders to react and coordinate on emerging events, such as the situation in Iran. The absence of China’s president will make this type of last-minute progress less likely and these discussions less meaningful.
Q2: What issues are going to be most impacted by President Hu’s absence and can anything get done without China?
A2: President Hu’s absence may be felt across a range of critical issues that could be dealt with at the conference.
Climate change and energy issues are central to this G-8, and without China’s participation, progress beyond rhetorical handshaking on these issues will be next to impossible. As the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the United States will need to show collective leadership if a multilateral agreement on emissions reduction is to be reached. Although indications are few that the two countries have reached even an initial consensus on these issues, Hu Jintao’s absence from the G-8 is, at a minimum, a dramatic opportunity lost to demonstrate joint U.S.-China resolve among a group of countries that are watching their words and actions closely.
More broadly, many countries, including some at the G-8, are looking to China to serve as an alternative engine for global economic growth at a time when the engine of U.S. consumption looks to have run out of gas. Similarly, as countries take aim at alleviating the economic pain represented by the collapse of global trade, China’s support for open markets and for an effort to conclude the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round will be critical.
Efforts to make progress on some other agenda items at the G-8, such as a discussion on African development, will also suffer in the absence of China’s top leader.
Q3: What does this potentially say about the future of the G-8 and the G-20?
A3: While domestic events were cited as drawing President Hu back to China, this decision raises even further questions about a G-8 process that was already struggling to define its role in a changed world. Without the participation of China and other emerging economic powers, some believe that the G-8 is inherently less legitimate in the current economic climate. The G-20 and other mechanisms have already benefited at the G-8’s expense in this respect. The ultimate success or failure of the G-20 or some other configuration (more than 39 or more nations are expected at L’Aquila) notwithstanding, the absence of China will put the long-term relevance of the existing G-8 process in even greater doubt. Even more fundamentally, the utility of these summit meetings is frequently questioned by those who point to outcomes that are long on broad statements and goals and short on concrete results and meaningful action. President Hu’s absence is bad news for the efforts of others to achieve tangible results.
Steven P. Schrage holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and Charles Freeman holds the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies.