Beijing’s Currency Wars Playbook

Beijing will play its usual defense against the moves in the U.S. Senate to twist China’s arm to appreciate its currency against the dollar: vociferous denunciation of Washington for turning protectionist and initiating “trade wars” while patiently waiting out the start of any serious hostilities, calculating that the threat of them will eventually recede.

The denunciation has duly come with Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, saying the bill now in front of the U.S. Senate proposing punitive measures against any country that is shown to be manipulating its currency — for which read China — “seriously violates rules of the World Trade Organization and obstructs China-U.S. trade ties”. He told U.S. Senators to abandon protectionism and stop politicizing economic issues. He also told them to “stop pressuring China through domestic law-making”. Co-ordinated sentiments have been expressed by the central bank and the commerce ministry.

While perhaps nobody outside the U.S. Congress really believes that a sharp revaluation of the yuan on its own will eradicate America’s trade deficit with China or create the new domestic jobs the U.S. is having such trouble generating, Beijing will know that even if the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate passes the bill, the legislation will likely founder in the Republican controlled House of Representatives. Even if it does not, it is highly unlikely to survive a presidential veto. That is the past pattern of such proposed legislation. Support for this year’s bill appears to be stronger, helped by its narrower provisions and the background of sluggish U.S. growth and joblessness, but the odds remain long that it will become law.

At the very worst from China’s point of view, and the bill does become law, it will be cheaper politically for Beijing to fight any punitive measures through the WTO than it would to be seen to capitulate to foreign pressure. Meanwhile, it can bide its time, letting the gradual appreciation of the yuan that has been underway since June last year (up 7% against the dollar since then and 10% against the euro) ease the U.S. pressure, which is anyway likely to abate after next year’s U.S. elections. Simultaneously, it buys more time for the economy, particularly the export-manufacturing sector, to adapt.

China’s policymakers are quite happy for the yuan to appreciate. It will help them both fight inflation and restructure the economy. They just want do it to their timetable, not Washington’s–and they have the playbook to do that.

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