Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Will China Listen?

The drumbeat of complaints in Washington about China’s manipulation of its currency — and the deafening silence pretty much everywhere else — might lead one to think that this is just an American problem. It isn’t.

China’s decision to base its economic growth on exporting deliberately undervalued goods is threatening economies around the world. It is fueling huge trade deficits in the United States and Europe. Even worse, it is crowding out exports from other developing countries, threatening their hopes of recovery.

After treading lightly on the subject of China, President Obama vowed last month to “get much tougher” about China’s cheap currency. On Monday, 130 members of Congress sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, demanding that the Obama administration designate China as a currency manipulator in a report due to Congress next month. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill aimed to force the administration’s hand. This would ease the way to imposing retaliatory trade barriers against Chinese goods.

So far, China has been defiant. On Sunday, after the close of the annual National People’s Congress, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao rejected American complaints as “a kind of trade protectionism” and made clear that he had no plan to do anything differently.

Since 2003, China’s central bank has been purchasing huge amounts of dollars to keep the value of its currency, the renminbi, artificially low against the dollar. China backed away somewhat in 2005, allowing its currency to appreciate slowly from 8.25 renminbi to the dollar to about 6.83 renminbi by 2008. As the global recession hit, China slammed on the brakes in order to protect its exports. The renminbi has remained at about 6.83 since then, and the pain has been felt in countries as far apart as Mexico and India.

Beijing’s intervention is a textbook example of the beggar-thy-neighbor competitive devaluation forbidden by the International Monetary Fund’s charter.

The challenge now is how to persuade China to at least moderate its strategy without unleashing something even more destructive. As the decibel level has risen in Washington, Chinese officials have implicitly warned that they could retaliate by dumping Treasury bills from their central bank’s $2.4 trillion cache.

This would be risky for both countries. The move would weaken the dollar and lessen the value of China’s holdings. The United States might weather a sell-off or even benefit from the drop in the dollar’s value, but any precipitous move could further disrupt the skittish financial markets. And Beijing has other potential weapons, like tariffs and quotas. There is no guarantee of rationality in these showdowns. The fallout from a trade war would be felt around the world.

It makes a lot more sense to address the problem in a multilateral setting, where China couldn’t portray itself as a weak, righteous fighter holding out against arbitrary American power. Retaliation, or even the threat, would carry more legitimacy if it were part of a multilateral agreement and done on a world stage.
One way would be to press the I.M.F. to officially pronounce on whether China is breaking the rules and manipulating its exchange rate. That is part of the fund’s job, though it has preferred not to pick the fight. China would find it far harder to reject an I.M.F. determination than any American criticism. It could open the door for other aggrieved trading nations to eventually seek legal redress at the World Trade Organization.

Even before that, it would help if some other countries — certainly those in the European Union, but perhaps aspiring players including India and South Korea — started publicly making the case that the cheap renminbi is hurting them, too.
The world’s battered economy is certainly in no shape to keep absorbing China’s exports, subsidized through a cheap currency policy. The more countries that say this, the more likely Beijing will consider changing course — and the less likely this disagreement will escalate into a fight that no one can win. Editorial, International Herald Tribune

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