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Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011

Beijing in Washington's footsteps


Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — The so-called financial leaders of the Group of 20 nations propped up this month's agreement in Paris against a fluffy set of economic indicators that may lead to their taking concerted action to head off a future potential global economic crisis. But it would be unwise to hold your breath expecting a deal.

The G20 still has to agree on "indicative guidelines" on which the indicators might be assessed and, after that, has to agree on measures that might be taken when the guidelines are breached and the world is hurtling toward crisis.

The semantic quibbling so completely preoccupied the leaders that they were unable to recognize or give attention to some very real economic crises that are already bubbling toward the boil.

Political unrest in the Mideast potentially may threaten oil supplies. Soaring prices for food and other essential commodities are already hurting more than a billion poor people. Robert Zoellick, the World Bank president, urged the G20 to "put food first in 2011" because "we are reaching a danger point."

Ministers might have spent time more usefully looking at the lopsided and largely jobless economic recovery that is under way. IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn warned that "the social crisis is still there and very strong. If you have growth that doesn't transform into jobs, what does that mean for the man in the street?" Oil, food and jobs got squeezed off the agenda while ministers argued about which economic indicators were relevant.

China was flexing its new muscles and Finance Minister Xie Xuren refused to allow anyone to breach China's economic sovereignty by counting its foreign exchanges reserves, the exchange rate of the renminbi or the country's current account surplus.

Let's be honest: The renminbi exchange rate is its rate against other currencies, so the rest of the world is involved by definition. Similarly, the current account is the balance of China's economic transactions with the rest of the world, so, ditto, this is not a matter of sovereignty but the essence of economic relations between China and the world.

Notwithstanding the G20 agreement, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner took extra time out to beat up on China for its "substantially undervalued" currency. If Geithner had a sense of history, he would understand that it was his predecessors in Washington — when the IMF and World Bank were founded — who staunchly resisted allowing those institutions powers to demand that countries in surplus should trim them. The U.S. was then in the happy position of being a victor in war and in surplus.

For decades long after that, Washington used its economic muscle to bully friends and foes alike. As the largest shareholder and only veto-wielder in the IMF, it guided the conditions imposed as a price for loans; and if the IMF dared to criticize American economic policies, Washington ignored the criticism.

There is also the issue of how much U.S. and Western multinational companies have contributed to the global imbalances by massive outsourcing of factories and jobs to China. Then add the role of Wall Street in helping to create the financial mess that brought the world to the brink of economic meltdown.

If you add all these lessons of history, the highly battered and distinctly grimy pot in the U.S. should not complain when the still rather new Chinese kettle starts singing the same tune.

Other countries caught in the crossfire, such as Brazil or Japan seeing their currencies appreciate sharply, or India and Bangladesh facing rapid rises in the prices of essential imported commodities, or indeed Americans and Europeans who can't find jobs, or ordinary Chinese workers who have benefited from neither the boom nor the massive $3 trillion pile of foreign exchange reserves do have a right to ask at least that the big issues be explored openly and that leaders who claim to represent 85 percent of global GDP should stop playing semantic games.

What is most depressing is that there is little honesty in Beijing's position or willingness to examine the issues. China's official media are economical with the facts about economic news.

In its report about the G20, Xinhua quoted Banque de France governor Christian Noyer as saying that the "meeting was very cooperative" and full of "rich debate, deep discussion."

When the U.S. Treasury issued its long-delayed report to Congress on currency issues and declined to label China a "currency manipulator," the People's Daily promptly declared that "major trading partners of the United States, including China, did not manipulate their currencies to gain an unfair advantage in international trade in 2010."

The U.S. Treasury, while not attaching the manipulator label, was highly critical and claimed China had made "insufficient" progress on allowing the currency to rise, and that the renminbi "remains substantially undervalued. It is in China's interest to allow the nominal exchange rate to appreciate more rapidly."

Whether China manipulates or massages its currency is a complex issue and whether it should be labeled a manipulator is still more complicated. But Beijing should allow more open debate and exploration of the issues, in its own interests.

Building such a large and continuing pile of reserves that are vulnerable to renminbi revaluation is a recipe for disaster. Promoting growth based on exports and investment rather than consumption denies the Chinese people the fruits of their labor.

Beijing should be using global debate to encourage speedier adjustment of its economic policies to promote greater reliance on consumption and on higher-quality exports that will increase the value added to China.

Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.


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