China's Checkbook Power
As a result of rapidly growing ties and trade, China has already become Latin America's second largest trading partner after the United States.
Beyond locking in the natural resources for its growing industries and developing new export markets, China is also focusing on expanding its own internal consumption of products it produces. Already, China has surpassed the United States as the largest automobile market in the world. In comparison with the rest of the world, the Chinese market for automobiles appears to be relatively robust. Monthly auto sales in China surpassed those in the U.S. for the first time in January, but automakers and industry watchers say the news may tell us more about the troubles in the U.S. than about China's growing car market, says a report published in San Francisco Chronicle.
Data released in February by the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers shows 735,000 new cars were sold in China last month, down 14.4 percent from the record of 860,000 set in January 2008. U.S. sales, meanwhile, fell 37 percent to 656,976 vehicles — a 26-year low. Some analysts believe U.S. sales may fall to about 10 million vehicles this year.
Worrying about the shifting balance of power in Latin America while the US is preoccupied with crises in Afghanistan and the Middle East, David Rothkopf, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration, told the New York Times, “The loans are an example of the checkbook power in the world moving to new places, with the Chinese becoming more active.”
While the Chinese have been actively engaged for years in raising their profile and influence in Asia and Africa, the rising Chinese presence in Latin America seems too close for comfort for the US.
It is estimated that the continuing trade surpluses for years have helped China amass a whopping two trillion US dollars in dollar-denominated assets. Last year alone, China added US$450 billion to its reserves at a rate of over a billion dollars a day. About half of the Chinese US dollar-based assets are in the form of US treasury bonds that fund the ballooning US deficits.
Gao Xiqing, president of the China Investment Corporation, recently told James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly, "Be nice to the countries that lend you money". Gao was clearly hinting at this new reality of " balance of financial terror" shifting in China's favor.
If history is any guide, the power of the lender over debtor nations is not just theoretical. The key moment when the world leadership passed from Britain to the United States came during the Suez crisis of the 1950s as a result of Britain's large WWII debt owed to the United States. When Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt to take control of the Suez canal, the US President Eisenhower warned the British that unless they withdrew, he would order the sale of the United States' currency reserves of British Pounds and Sterling Bonds; thereby precipitating a collapse of the British currencies' exchange rate. Eisenhower in fact ordered his Secretary of the Treasury, George M. Humphrey to prepare to sell part of the US Government's Sterling Bond holdings. The British withdrew and ceded the control of the Canal to Egypt.
“This is China playing the long game,” said Gregory Chin, a political scientist at York University in Toronto. “If this ultimately translates into political influence, then that is how the game is played.”
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