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Money Managers for Mankind? China in the Age of Global Governance, Part III

Money Managers for Mankind? China in the Age of Global Governance, Part III

By: Andrew Gavin Marshall

3 March 2016

Originally posted at Occupy.com on 9 February 2016

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This is the third article in a three-part series looking at China’s transformed role on the world financial stage. Read the first and second articles here.

In pursuing the strategy toward China of “integrate, but hedge,” the United States and its G-7 allies attempted to manage China’s global financial role, giving the world’s second largest economy a greater stake in the existing system while attempting to prevent alternative or antagonistic emerging market economies from gaining power.

However, due to the slow pace of reforms and their often disappointing results – case in point: the five-year delay of International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms that would give China and other emerging economies greater influence in the Fund and World Bank – China has turned to creating its own development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). And while China was developing the AIIB over the course of 2015, China was not only hedging its own bets – it was also advancing a strategy of “integration” on the monetary front. In the world of currencies, central banks and the global monetary order, China had an important year.

The main issue has been the inclusion of the Chinese currency – the yuan, or renminbi – in the elite basket of currencies managed by the IMF known as Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). Consisting of four of the world’s most traded currencies (the U.S. dollar, the euro, Japanese yen and British pound), the SDR is a currency unit whose value is weighted among those four currencies and used in IMF transactions between nations and central banks. But the real importance of the SDR basket is that it is a symbolic grouping of the few select currencies (and countries) that dominate the global monetary system. They are the most traded, saved and important currencies in the world, giving the countries and institutions that control them inordinate power in the global monetary and economic system.

China has lobbied for years to be included in the SDR basket, as both a sign of its global economic status and as a recognition of its new geopolitical power. But for China to be included, it needed to meet a number of criteria related to how easily tradable the currency is, how many central banks use the currency as a reserve asset, and whether or not interest rates are determined by market forces. Eswar Prasad, an economics professor at Cornell University who was previously the China country director at the IMF, commented that “this is ultimately going to be decided on political rather than economic merits.”

In laying the groundwork for inclusion, the IMF announced late last May that the renminbi was no longer considered to be “undervalued” – a long-held complaint of the IMF, United States and other G-7 nations that felt for such a large economy to maintain such a cheap currency gave it an overwhelming trade advantage, keeping its products cheaper and thus more competitive in international markets. Thus, the IMF’s declaration paved the way for consideration of the Chinese currency to be included in the SDR.

When the G-7 finance ministers and central bank governors met in Berlin in late May, they discussed the potential inclusion of the renminbi in the SDR basket. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble said that “it is desirable in principle” but “the technical conditions must be examined.” The G-7 countries continued to push China to reform its capital markets in order to increase its potential for inclusion. This pressured China to implement further market reforms to “liberalize” its financial markets, allowing for private financial institutions to play a larger role in managing the country’s economy (as opposed to being more state-directed and managed).

Earlier that same month, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), China’s central bank, approved roughly 30 foreign financial institutions to invest its domestic bond market, giving banks like HSBC, BNP Paribas, Société Générale, ING and Morgan Stanley greater access to the world’s third largest bond market (following the U.S. and Japan). China made moves over subsequent months to increase the access of foreign central banks and sovereign wealth funds to its bond market, as the country continued reforms that liberalized its economy. However, China still remained hesitant to adapt market forces too quickly or too fully that might have the effect of destabilizing the economy.

In August, the IMF recommended that while the renminbi should be added to the SDR basket, with a final decision to be made in November, the currency’s actual addition to the basket should not take place until September of 2016. This was in order to allow the country to implement further financial reforms and give banks, central banks and asset managers enough time to adjust their currency holdings to a slightly reformed monetary order. Some G-7 countries, such as Germany, France, Britain and Italy, favored a quick inclusion of the renminbi to the SDR, but Japan and the U.S. favored a more cautious approach.

Then, partway into August, China shocked global financial markets with a rapid currency devaluation – done partly to provide a boost to its own slowing economy – raising criticism from several countries that China was engaging in a currency war to lower the value of the renminbi in order to boost exports at the expense of other nations. However, because China’s currency is so closely tied to the U.S. dollar, as the dollar has risen in value over the past year or so, China’s currency has risen with it. This has put further strain on China’s economy and decreased its competitiveness relative to other global currencies whose value has declined relative to the rise of the dollar. That’s why, when China devalued in August, it explained the move as an attempt to move more towards a market oriented value for its exchange rate.

China was accused of currency manipulation due to its sudden devaluation, though it was in fact more accurately a response to the pressures from the manipulated changes in the value of the big currencies (U.S. dollar, Japanese yen and euro), which fluctuated in response to the winding down or ramping up of their respective Quantitative Easing (QE) programs. China managed to mute some harsher criticisms of its move by quickly announcing further market-oriented reforms to its financial and interest rate markets.

At a meeting of G-20 finance ministers and central bank governors in early September, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew pressured his Chinese counterparts to continue the process of implementing market reforms, and specifically allowing markets a larger say in determining the value of the Chinese currency.

In mid-November, the IMF officially recommended that China be included in the SDR basket, which would “turn its currency into one of the pillars of international finance,” noted the New York Times. However, the final decision was to be made by the IMF’s Executive Board at the end of the month, where the G-7 countries have the power to pass or block any final moves. Following the IMF staff recommendation, China’s central bank announced that it would be implementing further reforms to allow markets more of a say in setting interest rates. And in late November, the IMF Executive Board voted in agreement to let the renminbi be included in the SDR basket, effective October 1, 2016.

Then, partway into December, China announced that it would begin to measure the value of its currency against a basket of 13 currencies instead of just the U.S. dollar. This would give the currency more room to fall in value relative to the U.S. dollar’s rise, and would give the country more “monetary independence” from the decisions and actions of the U.S. Federal Reserve. The announcement came just as the Fed was set to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade, a move that would drive the U.S. currency even higher and put even more pressure on China as its economy continues to slow. In response, the Chinese currency hit a new four-year low against the U.S. dollar, increasing the country’s trade competitiveness.

The rise of China is one of the most important economic stories of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and will continue to remain so. While the United States and the G-7 seek to “integrate, but hedge” their bets in bringing China into the structures of global economic governance, such as through inclusion into the SDR basket, China continues to pressure for greater political power commensurate with its economic weight, “hiding its brightness, biding its time.” But the time is increasingly present, visible with China’s founding of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), as a potential rival to the World Bank.

The integration of China into the structures and systems of global economic governance will have lasting ramifications. Not simply because it represents a shift from the dominance that the G-7 nations held over the global economy for the past four decades, but because the Chinese model of state-run totalitarian capitalism itself presents an alternative approach to constructing a market economy. As China increasingly becomes a part of the governing structure of the world economy, its model will gain increased influence. Indeed, if war and hostilities between the other great powers are to be avoided, the future of global capitalism may well rely on a combination of Western markets and institutions backed up by totalitarian institutions like the regime in Beijing.

Given that the capitalist system is experiencing a crisis in its legitimacy – with warnings from the head of the Bank of England, the IMF, and influential financial dynasties that the system is increasingly under threat due to its excesses – democracy may no longer be compatiblewith capitalism. And totalitarian state structures may be the only way to save capitalism from itself.

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“Hide Your Brightness, Bide Your Time”: China in the Age of Global Governance, Part II

“Hide Your Brightness, Bide Your Time”: China in the Age of Global Governance, Part II

By: Andrew Gavin Marshall

3 March 2016

Originally posted at Occupy.com on 2 February 2016

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This is the second article in a three-part series focusing on China’s transformed role on the world financial stage. Read the first part here.

One of the most important developments in the global economy over the past thirty years has been the integration of China into the global economic system and its governing institutions. The United States and the G-7, which collectively dominate these institutions, have managed the process in a slow, incremental fashion, allowing China a larger voice, greater representation and more authority in return for its implementation of reforms to further advance the market economy and allow Western banks and corporations greater access to the Chinese market.

But China, and other emerging market economies, have become increasingly frustrated with the slow efforts on the part of the G-7 nations and the institutions they control. With emerging economies, and notably China, accounting for such a large share of global economic growth and wealth, those countries feel increasingly underrepresented in international economic institutions and decision-making. Their international political power does not accurately reflect their international economic influence.

Integration and greater representation within the global economic architecture is designed to give emerging economies a greater stake in the international economic and political system, providing them with ownership and authority. However, if the process is too slow or the results too weak, emerging economies could potentially create their own parallel institutions and perhaps even (in the long term) construct a parallel or opposing economic system altogether.

China is the most important emerging market economy and the one at the forefront of this process of integration. The United States has for decades pursued a strategy toward China described as “integrate, but hedge.” In a nutshell, the concept is that it is imperative to bring China within the international system, but it must be done slowly and in a way that curbs China’s potential capacity to disrupt the system or existing power structures. However, such a strategy can backfire, for hedging bets can easily transform into antagonism, pushing China to adopt more aggressive responses and ultimately creating the circumstance such a strategy was supposed to avoid.

This process is evident in the development of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which came in response to the slow efforts by the U.S. to give China and other emerging economies greater representation and ownership in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. In 2010, the IMF agreed to implement reforms to its governance structure and that of its sister institution, the World Bank – which is dominated by the U.S. and the G-7 – allowing several emerging market countries to gain increased shares and power within the 188-member-nation institutions.

But since the reforms were agreed in 2010 and ratified by virtually every nation in the world, only the U.S. has refrained, held back by a Congress that proclaims its wariness to give up any influence within the Fund. However, America would maintain its status as the top shareholder in the IMF and World Bank, while remaining the only one with veto power, and Japan would keep its position as the second largest shareholder. But the reforms would elevate China from the Fund’s sixth largest shareholder to third largest, putting it ahead of Germany, the United Kingdom and France.

Following years of delays in ratifying the IMF’s quota and shareholder reforms, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in October of 2013 plans for the formation of “a new multinational, multibillion-dollar bank to finance roads, rails and power grids across Asia.” The so-called Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank would present a challenge to the role of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), in which Japan and the U.S. are the two largest shareholders.

The U.S. was quick to pursue a strategy of containment and opposition to the proposed bank. As China was engaging in behind-the-scenes diplomacy with several Asian, European and other large nations around the world to gain support for the AIIB, the United States was lobbying its allies to oppose the bank and refuse to join its membership. China was meanwhile attempting to secure a roster of rich nations to join the AIIB as founding members and thus provide the development bank with much-needed capital. The U.S., however, was pressuring South Korea and Australia, among others, to reject the proposal and ensure that “membership in the bank would be limited to smaller countries, depriving it of the prestige and respectability the Chinese seek.”

At first, the U.S. lobbying and pressure seemed to work. When the AIIB was officially founded in late October of 2014, it had a membership of roughly 20 smaller countries along with China. The only other large nation to join was India. But in March of 2015, the UK defied pressure from the U.S. and announced that it would be joining the AIIB. U.S. officials weren’t pleased; one told the Financial Times that Washington was frustrated with Britain’s “trend toward constant accommodation of China.” This approach, said the official, “is not the best way to engage a rising power.”

Once Britain, a G-7 member, joined the AIIB, it led the way for other powerful and rich nations to do so. Within days, three other G-7 nations – Germany, France and Italy – all announced they were joining the bank. At the same time, Japan, China’s major competitor for economic, political and military influence in the region, said it was sticking by its major patron, the United States, and refused to join the AIIB. “The United States now knows Japan is trustworthy,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

But the American strategy of opposition to the AIIB was not without its critics. Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary, former chief economist at the World Bank, and a top economic adviser to President Obama in his first term, wrote in the Financial Times that the U.S. decision to oppose the AIIB could represent “the moment the United States lost its role as the underwriter of the global economic system.” Summers wrote that “the global economic architecture needs substantial adjustment,” with the U.S. and G-7 nations needing to adapt to a world in which China was virtually the same economic size as the United States, and in which emerging market economies accounted for roughly half of global wealth.

The President of the World Bank, U.S.-appointed Jim Yong Kim, pledged to find ways to cooperate with the new Chinese-led development bank, as did the Japanese head of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Former World Bank President Robert Zoellick also wrote that U.S. opposition to the AIIB was “a strategic mistake.” Even President Obama in April suggested that the AIIB could potentially be a “good thing,” but stressed that it would have to adopt the standards set by U.S. and Western-controlled institutions like the World Bank.

In June of last year, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke chimed in, saying, “The U.S. Congress is largely at fault for all that’s happening,” referring to the role of the legislature in blocking the ratification of the IMF’s reforms. Because of this, he explained, China and other countries have been increasingly looking to create their own regional institutions. “It would have been better to have a globally unified system,” said Bernanke.

By September, following a state visit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Obama at the White House, the U.S. formally announced “what amounts to a truce” over their opposition to the AIIB, with the U.S. saying it would stop lobbying against the institution in return for China agreeing to increase its financial contributions to institutions like the World Bank. However, both the United States and Japan continued to refuse to join the AIIB as members. At a joint press conference, President Xi said that “China is the current international system’s builder, contributor and developer and participant, and also beneficiary.” China was willing, he added, “to work with all other countries to firmly defend the fruits of victory of the second world war, and the existing international system.”

According to plan, the AIIB is to start with a capital base of $100 billion, and its ownership structure is designed to give countries in the Asia Pacific region roughly 75% of the voting shares, “giving smaller Asian countries a greater say than they have in other global organizations.” China provides the AIIB with nearly $30 billion of its $100 billion, giving its chief backer between 25% and 30% of voting shares and the only veto, since major decisions require a 75% majority.

The second largest contributor and shareholder is India, providing $8.4 billion, followed by Russia at $6.5 billion. Next is Germany with a $4.5 billion contribution, South Korea and Australia each providing $3.7 billion, with France and Indonesia each contributing $3.4 billion. Among the other large shareholders are Brazil, the UK, Turkey, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Iran, Thailand and the Netherlands.

The result: while the U.S. and Japan sit on the sidelines hedging their bets, the AIIB starts its place in the world of global economic governance with a membership of 57 nations from around the world. As former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said several decades ago, “Hide your brightness; bide your time.” With the founding of the AIIB, China may very well be staking a claim on its time for greater power in the global economy.