Opinion

The Great Debate

Can China afford to downgrade the U.S.?

By Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
The opinions expressed are his own.

After the rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s long-term debt, China said that Washington needed to “cure its addiction to debts” and “live within its means.” It must have been a delicious moment in Beijing, accustomed over the years to lectures from Washington about its management of the yuan.

But actions speak louder than words. The real test will be whether China moves away from the dollar in any significant manner. While it makes modest adjustments to its reserve holdings, there are few good alternatives to the dollar. And while it calls for an international basket of currencies to replace the dollar, there are few takers. Of course, China might move toward opening its currency and credit markets in an effort to make the yuan a reserve currency, but the authoritarian political system is unwilling and unprepared to move to that degree of economic freedom.

Many commentators see the downgrading of American debt as a great shift in the global balance of power between the U.S. and China. Some wags have warned the American navy not to sail too close to China, because if the Chinese captured our ships, we would no longer have enough money to ransom them. But such jokes misunderstand the nature of power. Analysts point to China’s seemingly unstoppable growth and its holdings of United States dollars. But as I show in my latest book, The Future of Power, they fail to take into account the role of symmetry in interdependence in creating and limiting economic power. If I depend on you more than you depend on me, you have power. But if we both depend equally upon each other, there is little power in the relationship.

Some observers claim that China could bring the United States to its knees by threatening to sell its dollars. But in doing so, China would not only reduce the value of its reserves as the price of the dollar fell, but it would also jeopardize U.S. willingness to continue to import cheap Chinese goods, which would mean job loss and instability in China. If it dumped its dollars, China would bring the United States to its knees, but might also bring itself to its ankles. The situation, analogous to the Cold War’s balance of terror, where the price of aggression was the inevitable destruction of both sides, has both sides eager to maintain the balance of interdependence even as they continue to jockey to shape the structure and institutional framework of their market relationship. In 2010, when the United States angered China by selling arms to Taiwan, some People’s Liberation Army generals suggested that China punish the U.S. by dumping its dollars. The Chinese leadership wisely rejected their advice.

On American power relative to China, much will depend on the often underestimated uncertainties of future political change in China. China’s size and high rate of economic growth will almost certainly increase its relative strength vis-a-vis the U.S. This growth will bring it closer to the U.S. in power resources, but doesn’t necessarily mean that it will surpass the U.S. as the most powerful country. Even if China suffers no major domestic political setback, many current projections are based simply on GDP growth. They ignore U.S. military and soft-power advantages, as well as China’s geopolitical disadvantages. As Japan, India and others try to balance Chinese power, they welcome an American presence.

What is the best strategy against Chinese cyberattacks?

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

All eyes should be peeled on China, but not for the reason you think. While the biggest structural risk right now is global rebalancing, especially between China and the U.S., there is another important threat from China: cyberwars. Cyberattacks are one of the biggest fat tails (along with climate and North Korea).

It’s no surprise that the latest Google hack attack came from China. The presumption is that the vast majority of cyber attacks hitting the U.S. are coming from the Chinese government. It’s very hard to know where threats are originating – country-wise and/or person-wise — because it’s very difficult to go back and figure out the paper trail. But at a minimum, there is an environment in China that tolerates cyber attacks.

Proprietary information around technologies – gaining profit shares, increasing revenues – allows a country to be much more economically competitive. China has leverage because everyone wants to get into China. If you want to make something in their country, you have to share the technology.

What are China’s next steps?

By Michael Spence

China has weathered the present financial crisis better than most countries, for a number of reasons. It reacted very quickly to the collapse of external demand with a domestic stimulus package of 9 percent of GDP in both 2008 and 2009. The stimulus package in China was heavily weighted toward investment, especially in infrastructure, which is something they know how to do. To some extent, the Chinese relied on past experience in the ’97–’98 currency crisis in Asia, a storm they weathered without depreciating the currency but instead with what was then a large domestic stimulus pro-gram. China also eased credit quickly, and used their massive reserves to stabilize the currency.

The result is a rapid transition to high growth, with projections for 2010 in the 9 percent and above range. On the other hand, as with other countries, the stimulus and other dimensions of the emergency response are not a permanent solution. There is a growing concern among knowledgeable Chinese policy makers and academics with regard to two things. One is a return to the old ways, meaning the strategies and policies of the past thirty years that focused on investment and labor-intensive exports, policies that worked well but have outlived their usefulness. The influence of those in government and in the labor-intensive sectors that are set to decline is still substantial. Their hand has been at least temporarily strengthened by the crisis.

The other is a deep concern about overconfidence in the economy’s resilience in the face of some daunting short- and medium-term challenges. Managing to bounce back in the worst global crisis in eighty years — and by far the largest in the history of the PRC — is impressive. But, then, the hallmarks of Chinese growth have been rapid learning, a long time horizon, a willingness to support and encourage constant change, and a pragmatic problem-solving approach to a long process. These will likely reassert themselves and displace any short-term tendency toward triumphalism. Nevertheless, the risk is there.

U.S., China and eating soup with a fork

-The opinions expressed are the author’s own-

Are economists the world over using an outdated tool to measure economic progress?

The question, long debated, is worth pondering again at a time when two economic giants, the United States and China, are sparring over trade, currency exchange rates and their roles in the global economy.

In the run-up to U.S. mid-term elections on November 2, politicians from both parties, for different reasons, blamed trade with China for American job losses. China responded with irritation and hit back by accusing the U.S. of “out of control” printing of dollars tantamount to an attack on China with imported inflation.

Euro zone faces QE2 pain test

QE2 — a second round of quantitative easing — means that soon the U.S., Japan and Britain will all be busily exporting their deflation, raising the question: Just how much pain can the euro zone take?

If by November we have three of the largest economies printing money and buying up their own debt, the outcome — in fact the intention — will be to drive their currencies lower against their trading partners, opening new international markets for their goods and, by raising the price of imported goods, fighting deflation before its debilitating psychology can take hold.

That is the plan, at any rate, and, unless something else happens, it will force the euro up against all major currencies, including, as it is tied to the dollar, the Chinese yuan. The euro has risen about 9.5 percent against the dollar in the past month, a trend that ultimately will murder European exporters and its stock market.

from MacroScope:

Will China make the world green?

Workers remove mine slag at an aluminium plant in Zibo, Shandong province December 6, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

Joschka Fischer was never one to mince words when he was Germany's foreign minister in the late '90s and early noughts. So it is not overly surprising that he has painted a picture in a new post of a world with only two powers -- the United States and China -- and an ineffective and divided Europe on the sidelines.

More controversial, however, is his view that China will not only grow into the world's most important market over the coming years, but will determine what the world produces and consumes -- and that that will be green.

Fischer, who was leader of  Germany's Green Party, reckons that due to its sheer size and needed GDP growth, China will have to pursue a green economy. Without that, he writes in his Project Syndicate post, China will quickly reach limits to growth with disastrous ecological and, as a result, political consequences.

China runs circles round adversaries

If the global currency war was a baseball game, they would have to invoke the “slaughter rule” and send China home the winner.

Motivations and consequences aside, China is so adroit in melding diplomacy, jawboning and action to keep the value of its currency low that you have to feel something approaching compassion for its plodding adversaries from the U.S., Europe and Japan.

China’s latest well played move is its pledge to use some of its massive foreign currency reserves to support poor Greece, which the markets widely believe will default some fine day, European Union support or not.

Speculators and China win big on yen move

What does $4 trillion a day in business, never sleeps and sees Japan’s Ministry of Finance as just one more patsy?

The foreign exchange market, of course, which is licking its collective lips as Japan embarks on another round of unilateral intervention to sell the yen in an effort to drive down its value and protect its export-oriented economy.

There are going to be two big winners in this, and neither begins with a “J.”

Flight to “safety” eases China diversification

China appears to be taking steps to diversify its holdings away from the U.S. dollar and may just have chosen a pretty good time to do it.

Longer term a meaningful diversification by China, which holds about a third of its $2.45 trillion currency reserves in U.S. Treasuries, is probably both inevitable and highly risky.

Inevitable, because China probably realises that, given the U.S.’s difficult fiscal and economic challenges it is not sensible to have its own fortunes tied so closely to its major client.

China needs to become a civil society in order to be a true global leader

The following is a guest post by Pei Bin, director of China Partnership Development for BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. The opinions expressed are her own.

At the recent Aspen Institute Socrates Summer Seminar, I attended the session “Soft-Power: U.S. Leadership in a Hardball World,” moderated by Joseph Nye, a professor of International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The session sparked my own reflections on the existence, or lack thereof, of soft power in China. While everyone at the Aspen Institute expressed strong and positive interest in China, the majority of the United States still views China as a threat.

  •