Most China watchers thought it would take years before the country's new leader, Hu Jintao, came out from under the shadow of former President Jiang Zemin, especially when it came to international affairs. Yet less than five months into his presidency, Hu is bucking expectations by quickly defining a more pragmatic foreign policy course -- delighting Western policymakers.
Where Beijing once reacted with strong words of condemnation to anything that suggested a West bent on hegemony, Hu's government has largely refrained from strong criticism of the U.S. war on Iraq. Hu has been warming relations with traditional rivals such as India and reacting relatively calmly to Japan's moves to strengthen the role of its military. "It's extraordinary if you consider [China's reactions in] the past," says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at People's University in Beijing. Perhaps most important to stability in the neighborhood, Hu has been making a surprisingly assertive push to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula.
His international initiatives come in the wake of his first big challenge -- the SARS outbreak this past spring. Hu's skillful handling of that crisis allowed him to emerge from under Jiang's wing and assert himself on the domestic scene faster than anticipated. Now, Hu appears to be trying to put his own mark on foreign policy, too. He has decided that China's economic goals necessitate an ever greater emphasis on building more stable relations with its neighbors. Policy is being "driven by their desire to minimize foreign policy problems so they can focus on domestic economic developments," says Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the University of Michigan and former Clinton Administration official. "They're not being very ideological about it."
China's aggressive role in pushing for a settlement to the North Korean nuclear standoff clearly reflects this pragmatism. Putting aside a decades-old tradition of siding with communist ally Pyongyang, Hu has presided over an unprecedented blitz of activity intended to bring the U.S. and North Korea to the bargaining table in Beijing as early as August. Vice-Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo has recently visited Moscow, Pyongyang, and Washington in an effort to break the impasse. Hu himself took the unusual step of writing a letter -- contents still unrevealed -- to North Korea's Kim Jong Il. "It is crucial to [China's] national interest to keep stability on the Korean peninsula," says Wang Yizhou, deputy director of the Institute of World Economics & Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Of course, Hu could yet run into diplomatic troubles. The new President's initiative on North Korea could founder, slowing his overall political momentum. Or new tensions could arise with Taiwan or Hong Kong that could lead to international repercussions. Another wave of protests could take place soon in Hong Kong as debate reopens on a controversial antisubversion law. With Taiwan, Hu's big challenge will be dealing with any provocative statements in the runup to the island's presidential election early next year.
As Hu continues to strengthen his grip on China's foreign policy, one key test will be managing Jiang Zemin. The former President remains chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission and was looking forward to a continued, prominent role in foreign policy. But his younger successor is showing every sign of charting his own course at home and abroad.
By Dexter Roberts in Beijing
Edited by Rose Brady