Authors: Divyanshu Jindal and Mahek Bhanu Marwaha*
The USD (United States Dollar) has been the world’s dominant currency since the conclusion of the second world war. Dollar has also been the most sought reserve currency for decades, which means it is held by central banks across the globe in significant quantities. Dollar is also primarily used in cross-border transactions by nations and businesses. Without a doubt, US dollar’s dominance is a major reason for the US’ influence over public and private entities operating around the world. This unique position not only makes US the leader in the financial and monetary system, but also provides incomparable leverage when it comes to coercive ability to shape decisions taken by governments, businesses, and institutions.
However, this dynamic is undergoing gradual and visible changes with the emergence of China, slowdown in the US economy, European Union’s independent policy assertion, Russia-US detachment, and increasing voices from across the world to create a polycentric world and financial system in which hegemonic capacities can be muted. The world is witnessing de-dollarisation attempts and ambitions, as well as the rise of digital or cryptocurrencies at an increasing pace today.
With Russia, China and EU leading the way in the process of de-dollarisation, it needs to be argued whether India, currently among the most dollarized countries (in invoicing), will take cue from the global trends and push towards de-dollarisation as well.
The dominant role of dollar in the global economy provides US disproportionate amount of influence over other economies. As international trade needs a payment and financial system to take place, any nation in position to dictate the terms and policies over these systems can create disturbances in trade between other players in the system. This is how imposition of sanctions work in theory.
The US has for long used imposition of sanctions as a tool to achieve foreign policy and goals, which entails restricting access to US-led services in payment and financial transaction processing domains.
In recent years, several nations have started opposing the unilateral decisions taken by the US, a trend which accelerated under the former president Donald Trump’s tenure. He withdrew US from the JCPOA deal between Iran and US, aimed at Iran’s compliance with nuclear discipline and non-proliferation. Albeit US withdrawal, other signatories like EU, Russia, and China expressed discontent towards the unilateral stance by the US and stayed committed towards the deal and have desired for continued engagements with Iran in trade and aid.
Similarly, the sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the Crimean conflict in 2014 did not find the reverberations among allies to the extent that US had wanted. While EU members had switched to INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) which acts as a special-purpose vehicle to facilitate non-USD trade with Iran to avoid US sanctions, EU nations like Germany continue to have deep trade ties with Russia, and EU remains the largest investor as well the biggest trade partner for Russia, with trade taking place in euros, instead of dollars.
Further, despite the close US-EU relations, EU has started its own de-dollarization push. This became more explicit when earlier this year, EU announced plans to prioritize the euro as an international and reserved currency, in direct competition with dollar.
Trajectories of Russia, China, and EU’s de-dollarisation push
Russia has emerged as the nation with the most vigorous policies oriented towards de-dollarization. In 2019, the then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had invited Russia’s partners to cooperate towards a mechanism for switching to use of national currencies when it comes to transactions between the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It must be noted that in Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which functions as a Russian-led trade bloc, more than 70 percent of the settlements are happening in national currencies. Further, in recent years, Russia has also switched to settlements in national currencies with India (for arms contracts) and the two traditionally strong defence partners are aiming at exploring technology as means for payment in national currencies.
Russia’s push to detach itself from the US currency can also be seen in the transforming nature of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves where Russia for the first time had more gold reserves than dollars according to the 2018 data (22 percent dollars, 23 percent gold, 33 percent Euros, 12 percent Yuan). As per the statement by Russian Finance Minister in 2021, Russia aims to hold 40 percent euro, 30 percent yuan, 20 percent gold and 5 percent each of Japanese yen and British pound. In comparison, China holds a significant amount of dollar denominated assets as forex reserves (50 to 60 percent) and has the US as its top export market with which trade takes place mostly in US dollars. Moreover, Russia has also led the push by creating its own financial messaging system- SPFS (The System for Transfer of Financial Messages) and a new national electronic payment system – Mir, which has witnessed an exponential rise in its use.
While China-Russia trade significantly depends on euros instead of their own national currencies (even though use of national currencies is slowly rising), instead of pushing the Chinese national currency Renminbi (RMB), Beijing is aiming towards establishing itself as the first nation to issue a sovereign digital currency, which would help China to engage in cross border payments without depending on the US financial systems. Thus, for China, digital currency seems to be the route towards countering the dollar dominance as well as to increase its own clout by leading the way for an alternate global financial system operating in digital currencies. It needs to be noted here that EU has succeeded in internationalizing the euro and this can be seen in the fact that EU-Russia trade as well as Russia-China trade occurs predominately in euros now.
Will India follow suit?
Indian economy’s dynamic with dollar is different than other major economies in the world today. Unlike China or Russia (or EU and Japan), which hold dollars in significant amounts, India’s reserve is not resulted by an export surplus. While others accumulate dollars from their earnings of trade surplus, India maintains a large forex reserve even though India imports less than it exports. In India’s case, the dollar reserves come through infusion of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and Foreign Portfolio Investment (FPI), which reflects the confidence of foreign investors in India’s growth prospects. However, accumulation of dollar reserves through this route (which helps in offsetting the current deficit faced in trade), India remains vulnerable to policy changes by other nations’ monetary policies which are beyond India’s own control. For instance, it has been often highlighted that a tightening of the US monetary policy leads to capital outflows (capital flight) from India, thus impacting India adversely.
New Dehi has resisted a de-dollarization push for long. Back in 2009, when Russia and China had started the push via BRIC mechanism (Brazil, Russia, India, China grouping), it was argued that New Delhi would not like to upset Washington, especially after the historic US-India civil nuclear agreement was signed just a year before in 2008 -for full civil nuclear cooperation between the two nations.
Further, currency convertibility is an important part of global commerce as it opens trade with other countries and allows a government to pay for goods and services in a currency that may not be the buyer’s own. Non-convertible currency creates difficulties for participating in international market as the transactions take longer routes for processing (which in case of dollar transactions, is controlled by US systems).
Just like Chinese renminbi, Indian rupee is also not yet fully convertible at the exchange markets. While this means that India can control its burden of foreign debt, and inflow of capital for investment purposes in its economy, it also means an uneasy access to capital, less liquidity in financial market, and less business opportunities.
It can be argued that just like the case of China and Russia, India can also look towards having a digital currency in the near future, and some signs for this are already visible. India can also look towards having an increased share of euros and gold in its foreign exchange reserves, a method currently being used by both China and Russia.
An increasing number of voices are today pointing towards the arrival of the Asian age (or century). With China now being the leading economic power in the world, US economy on a slowdown, and emergence of an increasing polycentric structure in world economy, the dominance of dollar is bound to witness a shake-up. In order for global systems to remain in sync with the transforming economic order, structural changes like control over leading economic organisations (like IMF and World Bank) will become increasingly desirable.
With an increasing number of nations now looking towards digital currencies and considering a change in the mix of their foreign exchange reserves, a general trend is now visible even if it would not mean an end to dollar’s dominance in the immediate future. As the oil and gas trade in international markets also start shifting from dollar, geopolitical balance of power is expected to witness a shift after decades of US dominance.
Major geopolitical players like China, Russia and EU have already started their journey to counter the dominance of dollar, and the strings of US influence on political decisions that come with it. According to Chinese media, Afghanistan’s reconstruction after US-withdrawal can also accelerate the global de-dollarization push as nations like Saudi Arabia might look for establishing funds for assisting Afghanistan in non-dollar currencies. So, conflict areas highlight another avenue where de-dollarization push will find a testing arena in coming times.
India has several options for initiating its de-dollarization process. Starting from Russia-India transactions, trade with Iran, EAEU, BRICS and SCO members in national or digital currencies can also become a reality in near future. Considering India’s present dollar dependence, whether US sees India’s move towards de-dollarisation as a direct challenge to US-India relations, or accepts it as a shift in the global realities, has to be seen.
*Mahek Bhanu Marwaha is a master’s student in Diplomacy, Law and Business program at the OP Jindal Global University, India. Her research interests revolve around Indian and Chinese foreign policies and trade relations.