China is playing a growing role in discussions over solutions to current economic problems. Much of the talk has focused on money — whether Premier Wen Jiabao’s concerns about the value of China’s U.S. treasury investments, or the People’s Bank of China’s paper floating the idea of a de-dollarized international monetary system. Up to now, one limit to China’s ability to contribute to global monetary reform has been its own currency policy, particularly the fact that the yuan is not convertible. However, now there are tentative signs that’s starting to change.
Beijing has signed currency swap agreements with six central banks: Hong Kong, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Belarus and most recently Argentina. These swaps permit those central banks to sell yuan to local importers in those countries who want to buy Chinese goods. This is particularly useful for importers struggling to obtain trade finance as a result of the financial crisis. As such, it’s consistent with China’s desire to participate in the Group of 20’s efforts to support trade financing.
China has long wanted its currency to play a more important role in the global financial system. These swap arrangements come in the context of that broader policy aim. The broader policy goal also has a more practical function in reducing currency exposure and transaction costs for Chinese exporters. The rise in the yuan’s value relative to the dollar in early 2008 was a reason why some Chinese exporters went bankrupt. The ability to settle trade in yuan would reduce this risk in the future.