U.S.-China Relations: The Case for Economic Liberalism

By Dorn, James A. | The Cato Journal, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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U.S.-China Relations: The Case for Economic Liberalism


Dorn, James A., The Cato Journal


In its 2005 Report to Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission--also known as the U.S.--China Commission (USCC)--recommended that China appreciate its currency, the renminbi (RMB), "by at least 25 percent against the U.S. dollar" or face "an immediate, across-the-board tariff on Chinese imports." The commission argued that such an action could be justified under Article XXI of the World Trade Organization (WTO), "which allows members to take necessary actions to protect their national security." The key idea behind the commission's protectionist policy stance is that "China's undervalued currency has contributed to a loss of U.S. manufacturing, which is a national security concern" (USCC 2005: 14).

There is no doubt that financial repression in China has led to an undervalued currency, but that in itself does not pose a national security risk to the United States. Workers in U.S. manufacturing lose their jobs for many reasons. Blaming China for displacing American textile workers, for example, and thereby jeopardizing our national security is rather farfetched, to say the least. Moreover, U.S. manufacturing output has been increasing as American workers become more productive (Griswold 2006: 12).

When China hawks and protectionists on Capitol Hill join forces, as they did to defeat CNOOC's acquisition of Unocal in the summer of 2005, a dangerous precedent is established that threatens the future of a liberal global economic order and undermines a constructive U.S.-China policy of engagement (Dorn 2005). Although it is proper to criticize China for its human rights violations and its lack of a transparent legal system, we should not ignore the substantial progress China has made since it embarked on economic liberalization in 1978. U.S. economic security, as well as China's, will depend on promoting economic liberalism, rather than fostering protectionism.

In this article, I first address four major questions posed by the USCC at its August 22, 2006, hearing on "China's Financial System and Monetary Policies," and then elaborate on those questions by considering China's repressed financial system, the case for economic liberalism, and the politics of China's economic reform movement.

Major Questions

In my testimony before the USCC (Dorn 2006b), I briefly addressed the following questions as presented to participants on Panel IV, "The Macroeconomic Impact of Chinese Financial Policies on the United States."

1. Is the present equilibrium sustainable? That is, are we in a New Bretton Woods Era? Or, do we need a new Plaza-Louvre Agreement to manage adjustment?

The "present equilibrium" is an equilibrium only in the sense of a status quo. In an economic sense, it is a disequilibrium due to financial repression in China and government profligacy in the United States. The status quo is sustainable only to the extent that China and the rest of the world are willing to accumulate dollar assets to finance our twin deficits.

We may be in a "New Bretton Woods Era" in the sense that China and other Asian countries peg their currencies to the dollar as a key reserve currency, but the analogy to the original Bretton Woods system is misplaced. There is no golden anchor in the present system of fiat monies, and private capital flows and floating exchange rates have fundamentally changed the nature of the global financial architecture. (1) The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been searching for a new identity since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of 'fixed but adjustable" exchange rates in the fall of 1971 when the United States closed the gold window and suspended convertibility. The Mexican peso crisis in 1994-95 and the Asian currency crisis in 1997-98 resulted in large part because of excessive domestic monetary growth and pegged exchange rate systems in the crisis countries. (2) Since that time many emerging market countries have adopted inflation targeting and floating exchange rates.

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