China’s Pursuit of a New Economic Order

SHANGHAI – Economists are increasingly divided over China’s economic future. Optimists emphasize its capacity for learning and rapid accumulation of human capital. Pessimists focus on the rapid decline of its demographic dividend, its high debt-to-GDP ratio, the contraction of its export markets, and its industrial overcapacity. But both groups neglect a more fundamental determinant of China’s economic prospects: the world order.

The question is simple: Can China sustain rapid GDP growth within the confines of the current global order, including its trade rules, or must the current US-dominated order change drastically to accommodate China’s continued economic rise? The answer, however, remains unclear.

One way that China is attempting to find out is by pushing to have the renminbi added to the basket of currencies that determine the value of the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset, the Special Drawing Right (SDR). As it stands, that basket comprises the euro, the Japanese yen, the British pound, and the US dollar.

The SDR issue was the audience’s main concern when IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde spoke in Shanghai in April. Her stance – that it is just a matter of time before the renminbi is added to the basket – garnered considerable media attention. (Regrettably, however, the media read too much into her statement.)