Hu has major obstacles to overcome in the international arena. Over the years, China's reputation has suffered internationally over its treatment of political prisoners and dissidents and continues to remain tarnished more than a decade after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Issues of fair trial and prison conditions have enraged Western human rights activists. Contributing to this problem is the lack of democracy in China, as measured by Western standards.
As the Chinese economy grows and its export-led growth strategy produces significant trade surpluses, critics in the United States are likely to question China's dedication to free trade principles. Significant pressure will continue to emanate from the White House with calls for the reform of Chinese copyright protection laws and labor laws. However, in order to maintain its high growth, China will have to export increasingly higher value-added products. In order to do this, China needs to convince the foreign business community that its domestic political and economic situation is stable and that reforms of the legal and investment codes are forthcoming. China's global position has improved since it became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in late 2001 and won its bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.
The perennial Taiwan problem, the return of Hong Kong and Macau, and constant attacks from Western critics of Chinese democracy and human rights have combined to increase nationalism within China. From a security standpoint, Asian neighbors have expressed concern over China's growing economic and military power and how that may fuel rising Chinese nationalism and consequent military action.
During his rise to power, Hu played an increasingly central role in Chinese foreign policy, making trips to numerous countries and occasionally making policy statements. In 1995 he visited Central Asia and Romania, and in 1997 he visited Portugal, Mexico, Colombia, and Cuba, where he complained about U.S. sanctions on Cuba. In April–May 1998, he visited Japan and South Korea, and in December attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. In July 1999, he attended the second anniversary celebrations of the handover of Hong Kong. In July 2000, he visited Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Indonesia. In January 2001 he visited Iran, Syria, Jordan, Cyprus, and Uganda. In November 2001 he made a formal state visit to Europe, including Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain on his itinerary. All of these trips strengthened his credentials as a statesman.
By January 2002, Hu had initiated an informal task force on Sino-U.S. relations. The task force will develop long-term strategies toward the U.S. Congress, plans to improve China's image in the United States, and a strategy for building relations with Taiwan. Hu engaged in short meetings with U.S. president George W. Bush in Beijing in February 2002. However, his few publicized statements regarding the United States have reflected suspicion. He expressed anger over the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in spring 1999, saying "the hostile forces in the U.S. will never give up [their] attempt to subjugate China." Later he tempered his remarks, and urged demonstrators protesting the bombing to "guard against overreactions." When he visited Washington, D.C., on 1 May 2002, meeting with President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, the impression that he left among U.S. officials, academics, and journalists was of someone the United States could work with. Bush and Hu expressed confidence the two countries could resolve their differences over Taiwan and human rights. They discussed the U.S.-led war on terrorism, agricultural issues, missile proliferation, and trade, in addition to Taiwan and human rights. It is uncertain how Hu will react to rising nationalism in China.