For years, Americans have been fulminating about China and its policy toward currency. While many of the debates are technical and laden with econo-speak, they boil down to the simple conviction that China is unfairly manipulating its currency to keep it undervalued against the dollar. The result is to give China unfair advantages in trade - flooding the US with cheap goods, hurting labor wages world-wide, and accumulating massive surpluses in the process.
That view is again articulated by Paul Krugman in today's New York Times, which ends with the firm statement: "Something must be done about China's currency."
But what exactly must be done? And more to the point, what can be? Declaiming that something must be done assumes that the United States or some other world power can coerce or force the Chinese government to change their approach to currency in particular and economic policy in general. Before the crisis of the past year, Chinese authorities had actually begun a slow, quiet revaluation of the currency, but only after American politicians and officials stopped using the currency question as a cudgel against China. The recent decision of Timothy Geithner and the Obama Administration not to label China a currency manipulator marked a welcome change in tactics. Compare that choice to the much-publicized Schumer-Graham tariff of 27.5%. It never went into effect, but it hovered as a threat that if China didn't immediately revalue its currency, dire things would follow.
But with China now accounting for nearly $1 trillion of American debt, and with the two economies in a symbiotic relationship that neither loves but that neither can escape, the U.S. can't simply insist that China do something about its currency and expect action. These economies are now fused (see my new book Superfusion). Much like the United States for last half of the 20th century, China is becoming a global economic behemoth. It isn't supplanting the United States anytime soon, but it is rapidly joining the U.S. as the other most important engine of the global system. It remains much poorer and less developed, but it is generating a substantial share of global activity and its cascade can be felt from Rio to Melbourne.
Given that, why would China decide to disrupt the system simply because it causes consternation in America or Europe? Its economy is booming and its policies, however unorthodox, are working. China will again allow its currency to appreciate when it feels that doing so won't cause a crisis of disrupt growth. Its massive accumulation of reserves is an issue. As the crisis eases, it's likely that Beijing will return to its pre-2008 policy of gradual appreciation, especially now that it is focusing on generating domestic demand and wants greater purchasing power for Chinese citizens. But Secretary Geithner - contrary to the criticisms of Krugman and others - has been exactly right in not publicly calling out China. Such an act would be both arrogant and foolish. In the world today, the United States can afford to be neither. Let's hope we remember that.