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The Renminbi Challenge

SEOUL – Last month, China unveiled its first aircraft carrier, and is gearing up to challenge the United States in the South China Sea. By initiating a plan to internationalize its currency, China is similarly seeking to challenge the dollar on the international stage.

In carving out a global role for the renminbi, Chinese policymakers are proceeding deliberately. In the words of the venerable Chinese proverb, they are “feeling for the stones while crossing the river.”

The authorities’ first step was to authorize Chinese companies to use the renminbi in cross-border trade settlements. As foreign firms exporting to China accepted payment in renminbi, the currency piled up in their bank accounts in Hong Kong. That led to the next step: Foreign firms wishing to invest in China were allowed to tap those deposits by issuing renminbi-denominated bonds, and eligible offshore financial institutions were permitted to invest renminbi funds in China’s interbank bond market.

Then, last summer, China announced plans to allow banks in Hong Kong to lend renminbi to companies in Shenzhen, opening that city financially to the rest of the world. The expectation is that if financial opening works in Shenzhen, it will be implemented more widely.