Authors: Dr. Faisal Ahmed and Hardik Gupta*
The global financial architecture has taken a leap with China testing its digital currency for the first time ever. It is known as the ‘digital yuan’ and was tested across the cities of Shenzhen, Chengdu, Suzhou and Xiong’an. In fact, the research and development process for the same was underway for at least five years. Chinese President Xi Jinping has already stressed on the need to develop artificial intelligence and 5G technologies at a large scale and has referred to them as the ‘new infrastructure’. The digital yuan, too, is a novel financial infrastructure in itself – a truly innovative mechanism. It has immense geopolitical implications for China and the world, the most important being its ability to avoid any sanction imposed by the United States.
A digital currency is different from cashless payments like those carried out through credit cards or apps. In such a transaction, the settlement is realised immediately, as against the cashless ones wherein banks still have an intermediating role. The digital currency creates avenues for communication between devices through which they can sense and exchange information and payments, and removes the conventional dependence on banks. From stimulus package to disbursement of development aid, and from direct money transfers to infrastructural investments like those meant for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China can use the digital yuan in multifarious activities. This is deemed to strengthen its global competitiveness and enhance its position of strength in global negotiations too.
Within China, a high acceptance of this digital currency is expected. This can be attributed to the country’s excellent mobile phone penetration and a good record of financial inclusion. These factors coupled with a state-administered system – that the digital yuan is – will support the grassroots outreach of the digital currency ecosystem. The local population is already accustomed to using apps like Alipay and Wechat Pay, and is likely to embrace this digital currency without much hesitation. In fact, the introduction of digital yuan will have huge implications for the economy and the people as it helps reduce costs and increase convenience in making payments. Moreover, the People’s Bank of China, China’s Central Bank will be in a better position to control illicit payments and frauds. The digital yuan has direct benefits for public policy interventions too. It would help the government directly transfer any relief fund or stimulus package to overcome the adverse effect of Covid-19 on supply chains and livelihoods. Besides, the Chinese government also intends to transfer the salaries of government employees through the digital yuan.
Today, the United States dollar is a robust currency with utmost acceptability in terms of international transactions accounting for more than 90 per cent of the forex transactions. Such an acceptability and trust endows the United States with better negotiating position in the global financial markets. The United States, however, has often used its ability to apply economic sanctions to gain geopolitical advantages. For instance, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) infrastructure requires all dollar transactions globally to be routed through the United States thus giving it a de facto ability to unilaterally freeze transactions. However, there have been calls in Europe for developing an alternative to the SWIFT payment system too.
The Chinese digital currency testing is now also threatening the American financial hegemony and is all set to provide an alternative to the dollar. If successfully implemented, it will move the world financial markets away from the dollar-centric system, and would also help the Chinese government to tackle any geopolitically motivated global currency disruptions. Today, the yuan occupies a very small chunk of the global payments and reserves. But being the world’s largest exporter, it is highly likely that China will push for global usage of the digital yuan among its trading and BRI partners.
During the ongoing pandemic, the American financial infrastructure has been exposed. For instance, there have been implementation related issues pertaining to relief fund transfer to the beneficiaries. It is therefore imperative that the financial technology infrastructure must be upgraded to boost economic activities and consequently the domestic growth. In fact, digital currency would rather provide more accuracy and transparency in such transactions. Specific sectors can be studied and selective relief packages can be provided to the most affected areas and population in times of crisis or a natural disaster.
The introduction of a digital currency can thus lead to a totally new outlook on public policy interventions in trying times. In fact, the United States too had toyed with the idea of a ‘digital dollar’ in the past with a most recent instance being the stimulus bill aimed at easing the adverse impact of Covid-19 outbreak. It was tabled in the United States Congress recently and proposed to implement the digital dollar wallets by January 1, 2021. Although, the digital dollar may pose a counter-narrative to China’s move, yet it remains a distant reality.
In fact, the emergence of digital yuan will potentially impact most economies – big and small – owing to their historical dependence on the dollar-centric financial system. The countries need to enhance their preparedness in terms of digitalisation of payments, its grassroots penetration, financial inclusion, and gradually reducing their dependence on dollar.
*Hardik Gupta is a participant in the international managers’ program at FORE School of Management, New Delhi.
China’s Financial Opening-Up Under the Covid-19 Pandemic
Authors: Chan Kung and Wei Hongxu*
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the world, globalization, trade and production activities are hit hard. Despite the pandemic’s presence, China continues to promote its financial opening-up. For starters, China is removing the restrictions on foreign financial institutions’ access to the Chinese market at a pre-pandemic pace, as well as opening-up various financial industries such as securities firms, asset management, and insurance. Then, China has relaxed the restrictions imposed on international capital entering the Chinese market. However, the turmoil in the international financial market caused by the pandemic is continuously affecting China’s financial system too. Due to the profound changes in the global economy and financial system caused by the pandemic, the act of reopening the financial world continues be questioned. Issues like the patterns that may crop up in the market’s opening-up in the future and the progress of the internationalization of RMB are some questions worth pondering about.
Comparing the situation to the time before the pandemic took place, the current international financial system and the global economic landscape have undergone great changes. The pandemic has caused global trading system to come to a standstill, disrupting personnel exchanges and logistics, thereby worsening the trend of counter-globalization. In particular, the pandemic has hugely impacted the global industrial and supply chains. Following the pandemic, the reconstruction of industrial and supply chains will show a more regional trend. Officials from international organizations said that the pre-crisis international trade frictions have led to a slowdown in globalization and will worsen further after the crisis. Barry Eichengreen, a professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that globalization has begun slowing down. This is not only indicated through the slowdown of trades, but the increasing trade barriers and capital outflows from capital control countries too. Concurrently, global capital markets have been hit hard, and major central banks headed by the Federal Reserve have adopted a never-before-seen loose monetary policy, further reducing interest rate levels to maintain the bubble of financial assets. This caused the global financial system to experience turbulence and differentiation. In spite of that, the dollar ’s position in the international financial system has actually strengthened, and emerging markets have been seriously affected, bearing the pressure of capital outflows and exchange rate depreciation.
Due to the pandemic and the tremendous changes happening within the international economy and finance, China’s economy has also suffered. Particularly, its consumption, investment, and foreign trade all experienced substantial declines in the first quarter. Likewise, the nature of conflict between China and the United States has turned into a sociopolitical one, due to the countries’ differences in managing COVID-19. In fact, China is expected to face a harder time on the international level in the future. The important question now is, will China’s financial opening-up lead to further domestic financial risks and market turmoil? Follow up question, will it worsen China’s economy and social stability? This is perhaps China’s biggest financial concern as far as opening up is concerned. To ANBOUND’s researchers, the changes in the international politics and economic landscape signifies things are shifting away from globalization and into regionalization and geopolitics. Going by ANBOUND’s earlier discussions on the “Crisis Triangle”, in the future, be it economic or financial fields, we anticipate competition for market space to further intensify. Therefore, China’s reopened financial system needs to focus on improving the financial market system, either by opening the financial market and capital opening or internationalizing RMB.
China’s financial market has been relatively closed off in the past. Not only are its market rules and legal systems inadequate, its financial institutions generally lack competitiveness as well. It’s not surprising to see investors lack professionalism, which results in a “blockage” within the currency transmission mechanism, on top of poor efficiency in financial resource allocation. With that in mind, introducing specialized and highly competitive international institutions will have a “catfish effect” that enables local financial institutions’ to compete better, achieve market optimization options, and improve the overall financial system. Furthermore, it enables foreign financial institutions to better serve Chinese enterprises and improves the efficiency in allocating financial resource too.
Up to this point, many institutions and researchers continue to confuse China’s financial opening-up with RMB internationalization. In fact, looking at China’s history of financial reform and past opening-up(s), its financial opening has been an ongoing journey, yet it was never once in sync with the level of RMB internationalization. The RMB internalization is more related to the changes in the exchange rate. When the RMB exchange rate saw a depreciation beginning 2015, it joined the SDR currency basket too. China and many other countries have signed currency swap agreements, though the offshore RMB is still shrinking. The situation has not changed with the opening-up of China’s bond and A-share market represented by the expansion of the Shanghai-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Stock Connect. While foreign investment in China’s financial market is still increasing, the overseas use of the RMB as a trading and investment tool has not changed significantly. Not long ago, Yi Gang, governor of the People’s Bank of China, mentioned the internationalization of the RMB is dependent on the market. The central bank’s focus is to provide infrastructure, reduce restrictions on the use of RMB, while the market decides which currency to use. Therefore, the internationalization of the RMB is closely related to China’s geo-influence in the international economy and trade scene.
Given the current turmoil in the international financial market, adhering to the opening-up of the financial market through system construction and upgrading should be China’s focus in its financial opening-up, meaning the country should continuously deepen the capacity and improve its financial market‘s attractiveness. Done well, it will attract the entry of international financial institutions, even with restricted capital flows; and international capital will too value the return on Chinese assets and risk diversification. That said, China needs to be cautious in opening-up the capital account to avoid the impact of U.S. dollar capital. For a long time, the U.S. dollar has and will continue to occupy the top position in the international financial system. China’s capital liberalization and RMB internationalization need to be promoted gradually in the form of regional trade settlement and bilateral financial cooperation. This means that China should adopt the means of “geo-development”, as the outcome will depend on China’s political and economic geo-influence.
Final analysis conclusion:
In the presence of the Covid-19 pandemic, China should give a little more forethought pertaining its financial opening-up. On one hand, it should emphasize and accelerate the construction of the financial system to promote the opening of its domestic financial markets. On the other, a more cautious geo-approach is required to implement capital account opening and RMB internationalization.
*Wei Hongxu, graduated from the School of Mathematics of Peking University with a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Birmingham, UK in 2010 and is a researcher at Anbound Consulting, an independent think tank with headquarters in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound
COVID-19 Hits Hard, But Challenges BRICS
By and large, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a huge toll on Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS). The pandemic, declared late January by the World Health Organization (WHO), allegedly originated (yet to be proved) from Wuhan city in China. However, the World Health Assembly on May 18-19 by a resolution agreed to launch an investigation into the origin of the disease, whose unyielding march across the globe since last year and has already left more than 320,000 dead.
Statistics made available as at May 20, showed that Brazil (310,087) in South America, Russia (317,554) in Eastern Europe or compared to, say in the former Soviet region, India (118,447) and China (84,507) both in Asian region, and South Africa (19,137) in Africa. It means South Africa, with a population 57 million, has one-fifth of the total confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa.
Further, assessing BRICS countries population in relation to the number of infections, Russia seems the worst spot among BRICS, and has taken the second highest in the world and that was followed in the third position by Brazil. Under a “pessimistic scenario”, the number of active cases could peak again when the expected “second wave of coronavirus” sets in and if strict precautions are not observed.
The COVID-19 has shattered nearly all economies. But at the same time, just as the COVID-19 has offered opportunities, so it also presents significant challenges. In the world including BRICS countries, the outlook remains bleak. BRICS is interested in both, taking advantage of the emerging opportunities and dealing with the challenges.
Experts have argued that BRICS members meet to discuss various global issues, and plan its joint collaborative projects on the global landscape. Comparatively, Russia, India and China, all these three still respond individually to varying opportunities and pursue different investment in the world.
As experts noted, China and India lead in the pursuit of economic spheres of influence worldwide. Geography of investment largely explains why China and India seem to be leading, followed by Russia, among the five. With regard to coronavirus and the operations of WHO, Chinese President Xi Jinping, delivering a speech via video link at the opening of the World Health Assembly, pledges $2 billion to deal with COVID-19.
According to an executive decree published in April on the official website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russia contributed $1 million to the World Health Organization (WHO) to fight the coronavirus. Figures unavailable for Brazil, India and South Africa.
Still put them together, BRICS is an upcoming and developing force to reckon with. Thus on May 7, Russia’s Health Ministry held a meeting of BRICS countries via videoconference focusing, particularly, on the issue of the novel coronavirus pandemic discussed joint efforts needed by BRICS countries. It was held within the framework of Russia’s BRICS chair-ship.
Participants from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa discussed at the meeting all aspects, including measures on liquidation of the novel coronavirus infection, and submitted report to BRICS Health Ministries. “It is planned that the online platform will provide partners with an opportunity to share BRICS countries’ experience and develop joint steps towards reaching a better understanding of the ways to liquidate the COVID-19 outbreak,” according to the report.
The participating officials agreed that it is important to strengthen international cooperation, within the framework of which there has to be a transparent and timely exchange of information.
During the discussions, the countries also agreed to continue providing mutual support in activities to prevent and treat the novel coronavirus infection COVID-19, as well as to create favorable conditions for the supply of deliveries of medications and diagnostic materials, immune-biological preparations and medical equipment.
Under an “optimistic scenario”, the BRICS meeting by Health Ministers of BRICS countries pledged to adopt further collaborative steps as their collective contributions toward the eradication of the global pandemic.
It is worth to say that BRICS has to accelerate the implementation of some of its earlier initiatives. Over the years, the BRICS has wanted to expand cooperation in the fight against infections and the joint production and use of vaccines. Cooperation on countering infectious diseases has long been a priority for BRICS. For instance, the final declaration of the 2015 BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia, contains instructions by the leaders to work on managing the risk of disease outbreaks.
That declaration stated: “we commend the efforts made by the BRICS countries to contribute to enhanced international cooperation to support the efforts of countries to achieve their health goals, including the implementation of universal and equitable access to health services, and ensure affordable, good-quality service delivery while taking into account different national circumstances, policies, priorities and capabilities.”
Last month for instance, BRICS Ministers of Foreign Affairs /International Relations held a video conference chaired by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Brazilian Foreign Affairs Minister Ernesto Araújo, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and South African Minister of International Relations Grace Naledi Pandor took part in the meeting.
China and Russia have strong working relationship and both are members of BRICS. Russia objects to attempts by the United States to turn the World Health Organization (WHO) into a forum for settling political scores, Minister Lavrov said with colleagues during the video conference of BRICS Foreign Ministers held late April. Russia has been working closely together with China, and Russia has no reason to oppose China, according to Minister Lavrov.
Key Highlights from that meeting included:
• The BRICS nations agreed to allocate $15 billion to the New Development Bank (NDB) so that it could set up a special loan instrument to support the revival of economies and help meet the emergency expenses incurred for responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
The BRICS nations further held discussions on ways to step up cooperation within the bloc to contain coronavirus pandemic, as well as to revive the economies that have received a major blow due to the travel restrictions and lockdown imposed in most countries to curb the spread of coronavirus.
• The meeting underlined the need for reforms in the multilateral systems and stated that this was the way forward. The bloc reiterated its support towards the World Health Organization, stating that it is a very important and unique platform, which employs the best professionals from around the world, including from the United States.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on all the BRICS members to firmly stand by multilateralism, by the international system centered around the United Nations and by the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.
Throughout 2020, – under the theme “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” – Russia holds the BRICS pro tempore presidency.
The emphasis of the Russian presidency is on promoting science, technology and innovation and digital economy and health, and strengthening cooperation in the fight against transnational crimes. In addition to those, dozens of academic, sporting, cultural and artistic events planned for the year, culminates with the final BRICS Summit on July 21−23 in St Petersburg, chosen as the venue in accordance with the Presidential Executive Order No. 380 of 15 August 2019.
BRICS is the group composed by the five major emerging countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, – which together represent about 42% of the population, 23% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 30% of the territory and 18% of the global trade.
Possibility of companies shifting from China
US President Donald Trump made perhaps the strongest statement with regard to China, when he stated that US could totally snap ties with China. The US President also stated that the US could save 500 Billion USD, while referring to annual US imports from China (in 2018, US trade deficit vis-à-vis China reached 419.5 Billion USD)
In addition to adopting a strong stance against China by imposition of tariffs, and more recently on the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has initiated some strong measures against telecommunication giant Huawei. In 2019, the US Huawei, along with 114 of its overseas-related affiliates, had been added to the “entity list,” citing national security concerns (as a result of being designated on the ‘entity list’, Huawei needs an export license requirement on all exports, reexports, and transfers of items subject to the US Export Administration Regulations (EAR) to Huawei and its listed affiliates)
On May 15, 2020, The Bureau of Security and Industry (BIS), US Department of Commerce announced new rules, with the clear objective of restricting Huawei’s ability to use U.S. technology and software and to design and manufacture its semiconductors overseas. According to the rules, Foreign semiconductor makers using American software and equipment need to obtain licenses for selling to Huawei.
US measures to reduce dependence upon China and change supply chains
There are also strong indicators, that the US is thinking of coming up with some measures which incentivize US companies to relocate from China (Trump ever since taking over the US Presidency has been pitching for the same) and to shift supply chains. There was talk of a ‘reshoring’ fund to the tune of 25 Billion USD. It is not just the Republican Party, but there is bipartisan support for re-thinking economic ties with China in a post-covid world (China made products accounted for, 18%, nearly 1/5th of US imports).
There is an especially strong consensus on the point, that dependence for essential commodities on China needs to be reduced (one bill passed by a Democrat and Republican seeks to set up a panel, which can reduce drug supply reliance on China). Peter Navarro, Director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, had also been pushing for the country’s medical supply chains to be U.S.-based. Navarro had even suggested an executive order according to which Federal Agencies were required to buy US-made medical supplies and pharmaceuticals.
With the aim of reducing dependence upon medical supplies from China, an important step was the recent decision of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services to award a four-year, $354 million contract to a private US company –Phlow Corp — to make Covid-19 drugs (this contract can be extended upto 812 Million USD over a period of 10 years).
Greater cooperation within Five Eye intelligence network to reduce dependence upon China
According to a report published by Henry Jackson Society all members of the five eyes intelligence network (Australia, UK, US, New Zealand and Canada) are dependent upon China for crucial imports. In the case of the US, it is dependent upon China for 424 categories of goods out of these 114 are linked to national infrastructure. Australia is the most dependent upon China – it imports 595 categories of goods from China, and 167 of these have applications in critical national infrastructure. The report also sought greater cooperation within the network for reducing dependence upon China.
It would be pertinent to point out, that not just US, but Japan has earmarked over 2 Billion USD (2.2 Billion) for facilitating Japanese companies from China back to Japan, and other countries. The bulk of this package (2 Billion USD) is targeted towards getting Japanese companies to relocate to Japan, the remaining amount is meant to be used for helping Japanese companies to shift to other countries such as Vietnam.
Possibility of companies shifting from China and likely beneficiaries
In the midst of the US-China trade wars, a number of companies shifted their base from China to Vietnam. According to a study out of 56 firms which shifted their base from China, almost half (26) shifted to Vietnam due to the investor friendly environment
Even in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, some firms (including Google and Microsoft) had expressed their keenness to shift production of hardware from China to Vietnam
Recently, TSMC (Taiwan Semi Conductor Manufacturing Company), the world’s largest contract chip maker also announced that it would build a 12 Billion plant in Arizona, US (the plant would be operational in 2024). While the US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, hailed this announcement, TSMC is likely to be impacted by the Trump administration’s new rule which seek to restrict global chip supplies to Huawei.
Why China is a preferred destination for US companies
While some US companies may look to relocate from Beijing, it is important to have an understanding of ground realities, and the views of investors. China is attractive for many investors due to a plethora of factors; this includes the large Chinese market, a rising middle class, and the ever increasing popularity of American goods amongst young consumers. Even after the outbreak of the coronavirus, retailers like Walmart and Costco are seeking to expand their operations in China. A number of other American companies continue to bet on the Chinese market.
In a Survey of 25 companies (by the American Chamber of Commerce in China and the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai), 44% stated that decoupling of US and Chinese economies was impossible. This is a significant drop from October 2019, where 2/3rd — 66% — of companies surveyed had stated that US and Chinese economies were too closely intertwined, yet it still is substantial (what is important is that only 16% of those surveyed had emphatically stated that they would shift their production outside China).
While it is true, that some companies are likely to shift from China, Beijing will seek to introduce policies which woo foreign investors. China had in fact introduced incentives for foreign companies (including greater regulatory transparency) in the beginning of 2020.
Apart from this, it also possesses some major advantages, which have been discussed earlier, vis-à-vis other countries. While countries like US, Japan, Australia, India and Vietnam need to work jointly towards shifting supply chains, it is important to be realistic and pragmatic, and understand that supply chains are not likely to change over night.
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