China's Falling Growth and US Hopes for Stabilizing the Global Economy: Mind the Gap
By Dr. Richard Cronin
The accelerating meltdown of the global economic and financial system has caught the United States off guard. China, now the largest holder of US Treasury bonds, obviously plays an outsize role in the ability of the US to finance its fast multiplying debt. China has also become a mainstay of growth and stability in developing Asia. Current US assumptions about China's role in helping the US finance its debt and avoiding a wider global economic and financial meltdown especially need urgent reexamination. Deteriorating economic and financial conditions in both the US and China challenge continuing assumptions that China will continue to buy and hold US Treasury Bonds and constitute a new engine of growth for Asian and other emerging markets. The new US Administration also should worry about China's current struggle to maintain social stability – and the reverberations from China's falling growth rate throughout Asia. The challenge is this – assuming the immediate threats to the US financial system can be eased, how can the Obama Administration better mesh domestic US economic policy needs with its wider Asian policy interests and slow or reverse the current shift of economic power to Asia?
For years the United States and China have had a de facto bargain that can be compared to the Asian concept of the equally balanced yin and yang. We, the high consumption country, run a trade deficit with them, the high savings country, and they in turn use their bilateral trade surplus dollars to buy US Treasury and corporate bonds. To date this has made perfect sense to Beijing. US Treasury bonds provide safety in the current financial chaos and selling them now would undercut the value of China's remaining dollar assets. Converting them into Yuan would put upward pressure on the Chinese currency, and thereby undercut China's goal of keeping its currency undervalued, its exports competitive, and inflation under control. Even in the case of a falling dollar, China thus far has had an incentive not to dump its T-bill holdings lest it force the dollar even lower and depreciate the value of its remaining bonds. But China already has set a longer term course to rebalance its foreign reserves by holding more Euros and Japanese Yen.
Now all bets are off. Current uncertainties have caused China to join the global flight to safety over yield, but near zero interest on T-bills and falling confidence in the ability of US economic managers to stabilize the financial crisis and avert a deeper recession are changing its calculus. China's own GDP growth slid from about 12 percent in 2007 to 9 percent. In November 2008 the World Bank cut earlier economic growth forecasts to 7.5 percent for 2009, less than the 8 percent Chinese officials believe is necessary for social stability. Other estimates are even more pessimistic based on fourth quarter 2008 performance. Recent protests by unemployed workers and bankrupt small business owners have created fear within the ruling Communist Party and prompted the government to announce an emergency 4 trillion Yuan (currently about $560 billion) stimulus package. About 75 percent of the so-called stimulus package is to come from state corporations and banks already awash in red ink, and most of the rest from repackaging spending that was already planned. In the words of China Investment Corporation Chairman Lou Jiwei, "China can't save the world. It can only save itself." It is increasingly doubtful whether China can even do this.
China's failure to stop or reverse its falling rate of growth would have serious regional impact. For every 1 percent change in Chinese GDP growth the rest of Asia's growth rate changes by an estimated one-half percent. Because Japan, South Korea and other Asian trading partners now export more goods to China than to the US, the fall in China's growth rate will hurt its neighbors' economies as well. Because the legitimacy of many governments in developing Asia has depended primarily on delivering a strong economic performance, the sharp drop in imports by China and the combination of soaring food and energy prices affects political stability.
Where to Start
The new Administration could shore up international confidence in the US ability to cope with the current financial crisis and reinforce Asian stability by taking the following first steps:
* Immediately intiate a comprehensive review of the assumptions underlying the expressions of confidence that China will continue to buy and hold T-bills and other US securities
Such a review should be coordinated by the National Security Council and involve broader policy representation than just the Treasury, Federal Reserve and other departments concerned mainly with economic and financial issues. China currently holds about 20 percent of US T-bonds while Japan and the rest of Asia hold another 27 percent. Chinese sovereign funds have already been badly burned on investments in US financial institutions. China's current "dollar trap" could weaken if return became more important than the security of its hard currency reserves, or if boosting domestic growth should become so urgent that Beijing was ready to accept the inflationary impact of using its hard currency holdings to support a flagging domestic stimulus package. The return on US T-bills is already near zero. At that rate, China has a growing incentive to move cautiously out of dollar assets and into Euros or Yen, or simply put new surpluses into these currencies.
* Broaden the China-US Strategic Economic Dialogue and/or merge it with the Security Dialogue
The Treasury Department and other departments with responsibility for foreign economic relations already work closely with China's economic managers in respect to T-bond issues, the trade balance, and China's de facto currency peg, but this is not enough. The intelligence community needs to become involved to better understand China's economic policies and revisit the conventional wisdom that China has no alternative but to park its foreign reserves in US Treasury bonds. Also, statements by senior US policymakers frequently reveal a sunny view of China's growth prospects that does not comport with those of analysts who look at the Chinese economy from a political-economic perspective. Nor does the US-China dialogue focus sufficiently on broader issues such as China's ambitions for greater influence in developing Asia. The intelligence community, especially the NIC, the CIA and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), should conduct a Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) on China's deepening economic and political ties to Southeast Asia, including its fast-growing role in economic infrastructure development in Southeast Asia and rising political influence.
* Work to create more confidence in China and the rest of Asia that US policy will take into account their political and economic imperatives
This also requires broadly based and coordinated policy action, especially on the part of State and Treasury, and in the US role in the ADB and World Bank. China and the rest of Asia understand that their fates are linked to ours, but have long believed – rightly or wrongly -- that US policy is too self-centered and does not sufficiently take their interests into account. This view goes well beyond current economic and financial issues. For instance, in calling for China to be a "responsible stakeholder" the Chinese and other Asians ask who is to be the arbiter of responsibility. In the past, this has been mainly a foreign policy problem, but now American interests require persuading China and the rest of Asia that the US understands that interdependence is a two-way street. That requires better listening and more substance, and broader policy coordination.
* Work to create more two-way trust between US and Chinese financial and economic managers
This requires more interaction between the Fed and Treasury with the Bank of China and other Chinese economic managers. Both the US and China especially need to be transparent about their plans for stabilizing markets and stimulating their economies. The US should ask for more feedback from China regarding its calculations for determining where to put its hard currency surplus, and how the US can maintain Chinese confidence without abandoning its domestic stabilization policies.
* Make a new effort to build trilateral policy dialogues and concerted cooperation with Japan and China
Japan continues to have a myopic view of its interests and shun leadership on Asian and international financial issues. Economic interdependence between China and Japan has not been sufficient to cover historical and territorial disputes. More substantively, Japan's central bank operations typically pay much more regard to perceived national self interest in influencing currency valuations, for instance. With the global financial system and economy poised at the brink, now is the time work with Japan to take a broader view of its stake in the global financial system and to promote trilateral policy dialogues and concerted cooperation among all three countries. The Defense Department needs to be more in harmony with the State Department on US-Japan alliance issues (and the ROK as well), and the NSC needs to break down department walls and approach issues from a political economic perspective rather than separate economic, diplomatic and security channels. To change recent atmospherics in US-Japan relations, the new Administration should demonstrate broader understanding of Japanese perspectives and work to eliminate the perception that the US is "bypassing" Japan in its dealings with China.
What's on the Line
US financial and economic policy managers should recognize and act on the most important challenge to the functioning of the international system since the end of the Cold War. Already, the EU countries have called for a major reevaluation of the entire Bretton Woods system. The United States still has the ability to lead and influence the financial, economic and even the global security order despite the substantial diffusion of economic power in the direction of Asia. The US cannot maintain its leadership without the cooperation of China. Across-the-board engagement with China on the current financial and economic crisis can contribute to a larger reliance on diplomacy and other nonmilitary means of achieving stability in Asia and other regions where China has become more active.
Dr. Richard Cronin is a Senior Associate and Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center.
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