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The Newest Superpower

In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a new world order is emerging—with its center gravitating towards China.

| Mon May. 4, 2009 9:47 AM PDT

Energy Security

Once China became an oil importer in 1993, it proved voracious. Its imports doubled every three years. This made it vulnerable to the vagaries of the international oil market and led the government to embed energy security in its foreign policy. It decided to actively participate in hydrocarbon prospecting and energy production projects abroad as well as in transnational pipeline construction. By now, the diversification of China's foreign sources of oil and gas (and their transportation) has become a cardinal principle of its foreign ministry.

Conscious of the volatility of the Middle East, the leading source of oil exports, China has scoured Africa, Australia, and Latin America for petroleum and natural gas deposits, along with other minerals needed for industry and construction. In Africa, it focused on Angola, Congo, Nigeria, and Sudan. By 2004, China's oil imports from these nations were three-fifths the size of those from the Persian Gulf region.

Nearer home, China began locking up energy deals with Russia and the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan long before the current collapse in oil prices and the global credit crunch hit. Now, reeling from the double whammy of low energy prices and the credit squeeze, Russia's leading oil company and pipeline operator recently agreed to provide 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) in additional oil to China over 25 years for a $25 billion loan from the state-controlled China Development Bank. Likewise, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corp agreed to lend Kazakhstan $10 billion as part of a joint venture to develop its hydrocarbon reserves.

Similarly, Beijing continued to make inroads into the oil and gas regions of South America. As relations between Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and the Bush administration worsened, ties with China strengthened. In 2006, during his fourth visit to Beijing since becoming president in 1999, Chavez revealed that Venezuela's oil exports to China would treble in three years to 500,000 bpd. Along with a joint refinery project to handle Venezuelan oil in China, the Chinese companies contracted to build a dozen oil-drilling platforms, supply 18 oil tankers, and collaborate with PdVSA, the state-owned Venezuelan oil company, to explore new oilfields in Venezuela.

During Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's tour of South America in January 2009, the China Development Bank agreed to loan PdVSA $6 billion for oil to be supplied to China over the next 20 years. Since then China has agreed to double its development fund to $12 billion, in return for which Venezuela is to increase its oil shipments from the current 380,000 bpd to one million bpd.

The China Development Bank recently decided to lend Brazil's petroleum company $10 billion to be repaid in oil supplies in the coming years. This figure is almost as large as the $11.2 billion that the Inter-American Development Bank lent to various South American countries last year. China had established its commercial presence in Brazil earlier by offering lucrative prices for iron ore and soybeans, the export commodities that have fuelled Brazil's recent economic growth.

Similarly, Beijing broke new ground in the region by giving Buenos Aires access to more than $10 billion in yuans. Argentina was one of three major trading partners of China given this option, the others being Indonesia and South Korea.

Will the Yuan Become an International Currency?

Without much fanfare, China has started internationalizing the role of its currency. It is in the process of increasing the yuan's role in Hong Kong. Though part of China, Hong Kong has its own currency, the Hong Kong Dollar. Since Hong Kong is one of the world's freest financial markets, the projected arrangement will aid internationalization of the yuan.

In retrospect, an important aspect of the G-20 Summit in London in early April centered around what China did. It aired its in-depth analysis of the current fiscal crisis publicly and offered a bold solution.

In a striking on-line article, Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of China's central bank, referred to the "increasingly frequent global financial crises" that have embroiled the world. The problem could be traced to August 1971, when President Richard Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard. Until then, $35 bought one ounce of gold stored in bars in Fort Knox, Kentucky—the rate having been fixed in 1944 during World War II by the Allies at a conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. At that time, the greenback was also named as the globe's reserve currency. Since 1971, however, it has been backed by nothing more tangible than the credit of the United States.

A glance at the past decade and a half shows that, between 1994 and 2000 alone, there were economic crises in nine major countries which impacted the global economy: Mexico (1994), Thailand-Indonesia-Malaysia-South Korea-the Philippines (1997-98), Russia and Brazil (1998), and Argentina (2000).

According to Zhou, financial crises resulted when the domestic needs of the country issuing a reserve currency clashed with international fiscal requirements. For instance, responding to the demoralization caused by the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Federal Reserve Board drastically reduced interest rates to an almost-record low of 1% to boost domestic consumption at a time when rapidly expanding economies outside the United States needed higher interest rates to cool their growth rates.

"The [present] crisis called again for creative reform of the existing international reserve currency," Zhou wrote. "A super-sovereign reserve currency managed by a global institution could be used to both create and control global liquidity. This will significantly reduce the risks of a future crisis and enhance crisis management capability."

He then alluded to the Special Drawing Rights (SDR) of the International Monetary Fund. The SDR is a virtual currency whose value is set by a currency "basket" made up of the U.S. dollar, the European euro, the British pound, and the Japanese yen, all of which qualify as reserve currencies, with the greenback being the leader. Ever since the SDR was devised in 1969, the IMF has maintained its accounts in that currency.

Zhou noted that the SDR has not yet been allowed to play its full role. If its role was enhanced, he argued, it might someday become the global reserve currency.

Zhou's idea received a positive response from the Kremlin, which suggested adding gold to the IMF's currency basket as a stabilizing element. Its own currency, the ruble, is already pegged to a basket that is 55% the euro and 45% the dollar. Within a decade of its launch, the euro has become the second most held reserve currency in the world, garnering nearly 30% of the total compared to the dollar's 67%.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's immediate reaction to Zhou's article was: "China's suggestion deserves some consideration." Nervous financial markets in the U.S. took this as a sign from the Treasury Secretary that the dollar was losing its primacy. Geithner retreated post-haste. And President Obama quickly joined the fray, saying: "I don't think there is need for a global currency. The dollar is extraordinarily strong right now."

Actually, maintaining the customary Chinese discretion, Zhou never mentioned the state of the U.S. dollar in his article, nor did he even imply that the yuan should be included in the super-sovereign currency he proposed. Yet it was clear to all that at a crucial moment—with world leaders about to meet in London to devise a way to defuse the most severe fiscal crisis since the Great Depression—that a China which had bided its time, even though it had the third largest economy on the planet, was now showing its strong hand.

All signs are that Washington will be unable to restore the status quo ante after the present "great recession" has finally given way to recovery. In the coming years, its leaders will have to face reality and concede, however reluctantly, that the economic tectonic plates are shifting—and that it is losing financial power to the thriving regions of the Earth, the foremost of which is China.

Dilip Hiro is the author, most recently, of Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World's Vanishing Oil Resources (Nation Books). His upcoming book After Empire: The Rise of a Multipolar World will be published by Nation Books this year.

Copyright 2009 Dilip Hiro

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