The Yuan versus the Dollar: Showdown in the Global Financial Arena


At the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, the United States laid the foundation for the U.S.-centric international monetary system, thus ensuring the dollar’s status as the key reserve currency for the next 75 years. The fact that other countries accepted the dollar as the main currency of international payments, loans and investments allowed U.S. transnational corporations to dominate global markets in the post-war period quickly. However, if we are to proceed from the development patterns of the international monetary and financial system, then it follows that the dollar will eventually be replaced by the yuan, the currency of the new global economic and financial leader (China). Will Beijing manage to build its own system of global institutions, one that is capable of internationalizing the yuan and competing against the U.S. currency when it comes to servicing global flows of commodities and finance? In order to answer this question, we need to look at the trends of the global financial architecture as it stands today and identify the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. and Chinese financial systems.

The Global Financial Architecture

The global financial architecture (GFA) is the combination of institutions involved in the regulation of global finance. It consists of a model for organizing international financial relations, institutional mechanisms for managing these relations, and the principles underlying the participation of countries in decision-making processes. The GFA model is based on the competitiveness and openness of global financial markets. The institutional mechanisms include fiat (intrinsically valueless) money, the free trans-border movement of capital and a system of floating exchange rates. The influence of individual countries on the development of the GFA depends on the size of their quotas and votes within the Bretton Woods institutions of the IMF and the World Bank.

One feature of the current transformational processes as applied to the GFA is the concentration, in individual countries, of financial assets that exceed the size of their economies by tens, hundreds and even thousands of times. For example, the financial assets controlled by Luxembourg exceed its GDP by 248 times, and those of the Cayman Islands exceed its GDP by 1861 times. These imbalances are caused by the fact that the modern GFA is formed not along the lines of the formal Bretton Woods institutions, but rather informally, via the offshore financial system.

It is in offshore jurisdictions, i.e. outside the national borders of the countries that issue international currencies, that the bulk of global monetary liquidity is generated. For example, in 2007–2008, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York opened temporary dollar swap lines for the central banks of 14 countries worth over $10 trillion to refinance the dollar liabilities of lending institutions operating out of those jurisdictions. The swap lines were discontinued in February 2010, but were reinstated three months later in a different format between the Federal Reserve System (FRS) and five key central banks that are closely linked to the United States: the European Central Bank, the Swiss National Bank, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the Bank of Canada. These C6 swap lines were made permanent and unlimited in October 2013. It is thanks to these currency swap operations that the U.S. FRS can create euros, pounds and yen in offshore jurisdictions. The other countries involved can participate in the creation of offshore U.S. dollars. The massive swap agreements involving the most significant central banks undermine the importance of the Bretton Woods institutions as the providers of global liquidity and make it difficult to record and control global capital flows at the intergovernmental level.

The U.S. Financial System

The main strength of the U.S. economy is that it issues the key global currency, as well as the fact that it has created the world’s biggest stock market, in which more than half of all U.S. households participate. The United States has the most liquid bond market, which means that the dollar is the international benchmark for value and the main reserve asset for the rest of the world (its share in the international reserve portfolios of central banks exceeds 60 per cent). Over 50 per cent of all international deposits, loans and promissory notes are nominated in U.S. dollars. Washington is home to the headquarters of the Bretton Woods institutions, which are responsible for macroeconomic oversight and addressing structural imbalances in the 189 member nations. Three U.S. rating agencies account for 96 per cent of all credit ratings assigned in the world, U.S. investment holdings manage more than 50 per cent of global corporate assets. These and other factors explain the dominant role of the United States in the formation and development of the GFA.

The main weakness of the U.S. financial system is that the country’s economy is based on debt and is extremely dependent on bank lending terms and the dynamics of stock market operations. A sharp increase in interest rates or a decline in demand as a result of economic overheating leads to a nosedive in share prices, which, in turn, leads to a depression, as was the case in 1929 and 2008. One other vulnerability of the U.S. financial system is its dependence on external financing, which is due to the status of the dollar as the key reserve currency. Should the international demand for dollars decline, U.S. funding from external sources may also decrease.

China’s Place in the GFA

China leads the world in terms of monetary aggregates (in the dollar equivalent), purchasing power parity GDP, production and exports, and the labour force size. However, China’s economic growth continues to be largely dependent on imports of foreign investments and technologies.

China’s leading positions on a number of economic indicators still has a negligible effect on the country’s ability to influence international financial relations. As before, the head of the IMF is a European citizen and the head of the World Bank is an American. Unlike other international organizations within the UN system, which make decisions based on the “one vote per country” principle, the IMF and the World Bank are stock companies whose capital is owned by the member nations. Decisions on the most critical issues on the agenda of the Bretton Woods institutions are made by a qualified majority of 85 per cent. Following the reform of the IMF quota and voting system in 2010–2016, the BRICS countries failed to gain the minimum number of votes (15 per cent) to obtain veto power and assert the multipolar principle within the organization. Just like before the reform, the United States continues to be the only IMF member nation that has the power veto.

China certainly owes much of its global economic achievements to its membership of international financial and economic organizations that the United States was instrumental in founding and running. That said, in order for China to protect its economic interests in an effective manner and exert tangible influence on decision-making processes in the global economy, Beijing needs to participate in those international institutions in which its vote has a decisive role. In this sense, China has high hopes for its recent initiatives to create pan-Asian institutions for monetary policy, finance and economics, such as the BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement, the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation, the BRICS New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The opening of the Shanghai International Energy Exchange (where transactions are carried out in Chinese yuan) on March 26, 2018, was a particularly significant event. This was China’s first step towards the formation of a “petroyuan” pricing system on the global energy resources market. The Shanghai Futures Exchange has begun trading in new oil futures, known as INE, which are expected to compete against British Brent and U.S. WTI contracts. The pricing of oil in yuan is an important component of the drive to internationalize the Chinese currency and lessen the global economy’s dependence on the dollar.

By late 2017, the People’s Bank of China had signed 37 swap agreements with different countries worth more than 3 trillion yuan. The agreements were aimed at facilitating the use of the yuan in doing business with foreign banks and companies, so that the central banks receiving liquidity in yuan can act as lenders of last resort after the activation of currency swap lines. However, the agreements have not resulted in a significant increase in the global use of the yuan, which is what was originally expected. Since the 2008 initiation of the swap agreements, the share of the Chinese currency in the denomination of international promissory notes has stood at roughly 0.3 per cent, whereas the share of the U.S. dollar has grown from 47 per cent to 63 per cent.

In addition, currency transactions involving the yuan are mostly done via London, not Beijing. The United Kingdom accounts for 33.79 per cent of all global currency operations involving the yuan. Hong Kong remains the largest clearing centre for international transactions in yuan, serving 76.36 per cent of all such global operations (the United Kingdom is second with 6.18 per cent). Thus, most international transactions involving the yuan are performed outside continental China.

One more obstacle to the faster internationalization of the yuan is China’s preoccupation with domestic problems stemming from the rapid growth of debts (especially in the property market), the growth of the shadow banking system and the disproportionate allocation of loans to large and small businesses. In its attempts to conduct a softer monetary policy, the Chinese government is facing a difficult choice between supporting short-term growth and countering unfavourable external shocks. A monetary easing could increase the vulnerability of the Chinese economy, because continued lending growth is capable of slowing down or complicating the restoration of banks’ balance sheets and aggravating the existing imbalances in the allocation of loans.

University of California professor Barry Eichengreen, who is one of the most respected experts on the development of the international monetary system, says the yuan does not qualify as an international currency for three reasons: 1) the high costs of financial transactions involving the acquisition and distribution of information; 2) China’s great dependence on Hong Kong as a regional offshore centre; 3) China’s inability to exert political pressure on the other global economic centres, primarily the United States and the European Union. At the same time, according to Eichengreen, there are four factors indicating the growing status of the yuan as a regional currency: 1) the potential growth of incomes in Asian countries, which results in increased demand for Chinese commodities; 2) the implementation of multilateral projects as part of the Belt and Road initiative, which results in the growing use of the yuan in Central and Southeast Asia; 3) the development of the Asian bond market, which leads to the standardization of international promissory notes nominated in yuan; 4) the growing demand for yuan on the part of commercial banks and companies in swap transactions between central banks as part of the Chiang Mai Initiative.

Points of Conflict between the United States and China

Unlike the Cold War era, which was characterized by the polar confrontation between two systems, today the United States and China are members of the same international financial organizations, they both interact in the uniform global capitalist market and follow the same principles of competition, effectiveness and profit maximization. For this reason, the main point of conflict between the United States and China concerns mutual restrictions when it comes to allowing the other country’s finished products and services onto their national markets.

Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences recipient Joseph Stiglitz believes that the United States stands to lose more from its trade war with China than China does, as the Chinese authorities have far greater opportunities to restrict the operations of U.S. corporations working in China than the U.S. authorities do when it comes to Chinese goods imported into the United States as part of international trade. In addition, raising the prices of Chinese commodities on the U.S. market may cause dissatisfaction among end customers.

Another point of conflict between the two countries is connected to China’s limited ability to influence major international organizations. Despite the IMF reform, China did not secure a tangible increase in its influence within the organization, with its quota only growing from 4.0 per cent to 6.41% per cent. We should note here that when the IMF began operating in 1947, China’s quota was bigger than it is now, at 6.56 per cent (even though the country was the world’s fifth-largest economy at the time, not the second largest as it is today). The formal inclusion of the yuan in the special drawing rights (SDR) basket (the IMF’s cashless reserve asset) in 2016 was largely symbolic, because the use of SDRs has no effect on the actual balance of forces in the GFA. The value of the SDRs in circulation stands at $204.1 billion, or under 4 per cent of the international currency reserves calculated in dollars. The share of the yuan in the structure of international currency reserves and international transactions stands at approximately 2 per cent, which does not reflect China’s global role as the largest manufacturer and exporter.

One more potential point of conflict is the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. In accordance with the Made in China 2025 plan to develop strategic technologies, the country expects to have assumed global dominance in the world in the field of AI by 2030. The financial sector has high hopes for AI in terms of its potential to increase effectiveness and profitability, much like the effect that the introduction of information technologies had on financial services. China has already outstripped Europe in the number of AI-related startups and is gaining ground on the global leader in AI, the United States.


Experts view pan-Asian financial institutions as an instrument used by China to establish its status as the leading Eurasian and global power. Chinese officials repeatedly stress that the newly established institutions aim to compete with the Bretton Woods institutions, not replace them. In other words, at the current stage in the development of the GFA, China has no intention of changing the neo-liberal principles of its functioning.

Despite the significant increase in China’s influence on the global economy and the addition of the yuan to the SDR basket, the dollar continues to play the key role in the global financial market and in servicing international trade in commodities and services. China’s growing influence on the GFA thus depends on strengthening the global role of Sino-centric financial institutions and on the broader use of the yuan in international payment systems and in transactions on the global financial market. At the same time, the active creation of offshore dollars that are not controlled by the U.S. regulators increases the risk of the dollar-centric currency system collapsing.

It is obvious that the current GFA configuration is not likely to undergo any significant changes in the foreseeable future (unless another global financial crisis breaks out) because the United States has a significant number of institutional instruments and mechanisms for influencing the global economy at its disposal. In the long run, however, any growth in China’s actual role in the international financial system will depend on the successful promotion of a conceptual alternative to the current GFA model for the purpose of overcoming global imbalances between the financial sector and real economy.

From our partner RIAC

Aleksei Kuznetsov
Aleksei Kuznetsov
Doctor of Economics, Senior Research Fellow and Professor in the Department of World Economy and World Finance of the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, RIAC expert