Ahead of G-20, China questions US's financial dominance
China's deep reserves and continued growth put it in a position of strength.
For years, China has been getting richer by feeding the rest of the world's seemingly insatiable demand for the things that it makes.
At this week's Group of 20 summit, Chinese President Hu Jintao will find the boot on the other foot. His counterparts in the United States and Europe are desperate for China to buy more of the things that their countries make, to help pull them out of recession.
President Hu will doubtless remind the meeting that Beijing's $500 billion-plus economic stimulus plan is designed to boost Chinese demand for foreign goods as well as Chinese-made items. But he will also caution his colleagues not to put excessive faith in China.
Angel Gurria, head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, also warned here the other day that the world could not expect China to grasp a "sword and shield" to defend it from recession single-handedly. "I don't think we are suggesting that China should save the world," he says. "But if China does very well it will help the world."
Beijing is aiming for GDP growth of 8 percent this year. The World Bank estimates China's economy will grow by about 6.5 percent, offering international manufacturers one of the planet's rare expanding markets.
In fact, Chinese leaders have been voicing more concern recently over the US economy than about their own.
China is the largest holder of US dollar-denominated assets in the world. The bulk of its $2 trillion worth of foreign reserves is in US dollars. So, Beijing is frightened that the fast pace at which the US Federal Reserve is printing dollars could lead to inflation, a fall in the dollar's value, and big losses for China.
"To be honest, I'm a little bit worried," Premier Wen Jiabao told reporters earlier this month. "We have lent a huge amount of money to the United States. Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets."
That very public poke was followed by an essay published last week by the governor of China's Central Bank arguing that the scale of the current global economic crisis was a result of the US dollar's status as the world's top reserve currency. He proposed a new, internationally managed global currency to fill that role.
And the Central Bank's deputy governor, Hu Xiaolian, pointedly suggested last Monday that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should henceforth monitor the US economy as closely as it has traditionally overseen struggling Third World countries.
"In the current circumstances," she said acidly, "the IMF should regulate the financial policies of those major countries issuing reserve currencies."
For Chinese officials, accustomed to being lectured by Washington about their exchange rate policy, lecturing the United States about its economic policy offers a sweet change. It also marks a political shift.
"China is being proactive in a way we have not seen before ... calling for a new regulatory structure that takes us away from a unipolar world."
As a standard bearer for developing countries, China will use this week's G-20 summit to demand that they should have a louder voice in the IMF, Ms. Hu said. She even took a swipe at the tradition by which the World Bank is headed by an American and the IMF by a European.
"Senior management at international financial institutions, especially the IMF, should be selected on the basis of fairness, competition, and merit," she said, "so as to ensure that those running the institutions have the sort of capabilities recognized by all parties."
If Beijing seeks weaker US influence at the IMF, however, it is less clear about how strong it would like the US dollar to be.
As a creditor, China wants a strong dollar to protect the value of its savings. A strong dollar, and correspondingly weak Chinese currency, also makes Chinese exports more competitive as Beijing tries to revive its struggling export industries.
On the other hand, American consumers are only going to buy anything that China makes if the US economy improves, and that seems possible only if the Fed maintains a loose monetary policy, which would undermine the dollar's value.
"US monetary policy has to be responsible because the dollar is not just a domestic currency," says Tang Min, deputy head of the Chinese cabinet's economic think tank. "Their decisions have to balance domestic with international interests."
That is no less the case when it comes to trade, President Hu will argue, making a strong case against countries putting domestic interests above the international good by protecting their markets.
Hu will also press for a coordinated international response to the crisis, says Daniel Rosen, the China expert at Rhodium Group, an advisory company in New York, because "China has more to lose from muddling forward than anyone else."
Though China is expected to grow faster this year than most other countries, 6.5 percent GDP growth is only just more than half what the country enjoyed two years ago. "They've fallen more than anyone else," Mr. Rosen points out, "and the social stability consequences of this being more prolonged are gargantuan."
Regardless of the summit's outcome, however, China is in one sense already a winner.
"It has already achieved its most important goal, to be seated at the table on an equal basis with the other large economic powers," says Brad Setser, Geo-economics fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"That China and its policy proposals can command so much attention," he adds, "is concrete evidence for Beijing of China's growing importance in the international economic system."