Monday, 6 April 2009


'A wider order comes into view'

By Quentin Peel

April 6 2009

Financial Times

[emphasis added - FoC]

It may take months to discover whether the actions taken by

last week's Group of 20 summit in London are enough to

rescue the world economy from a prolonged recession, if not

depression. The substance of its conclusions will have to

convince capital markets, global financial institutions,

investors and humble consumers that they can start to

spend, borrow or lend again.

But the symbolism of the event may be more important than

the substance. For even if the G20 countries are a strange

ad hoc selection, initially brought together by the Asian

financial crisis in 1997, they represent a whole new

element in the world order. They are not the Group of Seven

- the club of western powers and Japan - or the G8 (the G7

plus Russia). The use of the G20 at this moment of global

crisis is a clear indication that the old order has

outlived its time.

Another pointer came four months ago when the US National

Intelligence Council, part of Washington's security

apparatus, published a startling forecast. The

international system as constructed after the second world

war would, it predicted, be "unrecognisable" by 2025,

thanks to globalisation, the rise of emerging powers and

"an historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power

from west to east".

"The next 20 years of transition to a new system are

fraught with risks," the document declared. "Strategic

rivalries are most likely to revolve around trade,

investments and technological innovation and acquisition,

but we cannot rule out a 19th-century scenario of arms

races, territorial expansion, and military rivalries."

That report was largely written before the full force of

the financial and economic crisis had become apparent.

Nevertheless, its authors were convinced that the "unipolar

moment" of unchallenged US hegemony after the Berlin Wall

came down was already drawing to an end. The future world

order would be "multipolar".

The extraordinary thing about the present moment is that

several fundamental adjustments are taking place at the

same time. That is what makes the outcome so unpredictable.

The end of the cold war, with the fall of the Wall in 1989,

cleared the way for new powers to rise - China and India in

particular - and removed ideological obstacles to

globalisation. Cross-border migration has surged. The

technological revolution of the internet has transformed

international communications, the flow of information,

financial trading and political awareness. The breakdown in

the global financial system, caused not just by the bubble

that burst in the US subprime mortgage market but also the

explosion of financial speculation across world markets,

has rapidly turned into a recession in the real economy. No

one has been spared. Credit has frozen up in markets from

Africa to eastern Europe.

A massive rebalancing is starting to take place in world

trade flows between the unsustainable US trade deficit and

the equally unsustainable surpluses of China and other big

exporters. US consumers are no longer going to be the

engine for Chinese export-led growth, but nor can Chinese

savers continue to finance American borrowing.

Finally there is the underlying adjustment - one that would

normally still take decades to be realised - that the NIC

report identifies, of the switch in power from west to

east, especially the rise of China and India to reassume

the prominence they held when Europe was in the Dark Ages.

There is an assumption in many parts of the world that the

"crisis of capitalism" represented by the freezing up of

the financial system will accelerate the long-term

geopolitical shift, heralding the decline of US power and

European influence. Last year's choice of the G20 as the

forum to tackle the crisis was a belated recognition that

China, India and Brazil, at the very least, must be at the

table. But will the G20 provide lasting leadership? It

smacks of an emergency solution, not a considered

construction. For a start, it has no permanent secretariat.

Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, as current chairman

struggled for months with a tiny team of British civil

servants to forge a consensus. There were divisions between

the US and Europe. More important, there were different

priorities for the industrialised countries and emerging

economies. It was remarkable they managed to agree on a


"It is an arrangement that works for finance ministers and

central bank governors to meet once a year," says Trevor

Manuel, the South African finance minister. "When you take

it up to heads of state and government, the imbalances are


But at least there were few signs of schadenfreude in

London. Expectations in 2007 and 2008 of a "decoupling"

between the crisis-hit economies of the west and the less

exposed emerging markets have vanished. The pain is global

and the solution had to be, too.

The real economic effect of the financial crisis has hit

emerging markets harder than the developed economies, with

a collapse in trade flows and a dramatic fall in commodity

prices. It is clear that those worst hit will be the

poorest - especially in Africa - who have the least to fall

back on.

Second hardest hit are those commodity producers that have

always faced big social and demographic challenges, such as

energy-rich Russia, Iran, Nigeria and Venezuela. Even Gulf

oil producers have been affected. All had become used to

swollen export and tax revenues and face readjustment.

Finally, emerging economies still in transition from

poverty to prosperity - or from communism to democracy -

have been caught by the economic crunch before they could

build stable systems of governance and root out endemic

corruption. They include many in central and eastern Europe

that emerged from the Soviet empire.

Some observers are sceptical about the geopolitical fallout

from any financial crisis. "Geopolitical events like the

disappearance of Mao in China, or the fall of the Berlin

Wall, have far greater consequences than financial shocks,"

says Robert Cooper, director-general of external affairs at

the Council of the European Union. "Look at the technology

bubble in the 1990s. There were no obvious consequences. Or

the 1970s crisis with oil prices. Any geopolitical

consequences rapidly disappeared."

Yet he admits that two financial crises of the 20th century

- the Depression of the 1930s and economic collapse in

Europe after the second world war - did have important

results. The former led to the rise of Nazi Germany, the

isolationism of America and the outbreak of war. The

latter, far more positive, resulted in the Marshall Plan

that financed the German Wirtschafts-wunder and economic

revival across the rest of the continent, which led to the

eventual establishment of the EU. The lessons of the 1930s

also led to the setting up of the Bretton Woods

institutions - the World Bank and International Monetary

Fund - to bring monetary order to the main industrialised

states and a system of crisis management that has survived

for more than 60 years. But today their legitimacy and

representativeness are being called into question.

The central nation in the ongoing geopolitical

transformation is China. It is also the most difficult to

read. "They want everything and nothing," says a senior IMF

official. "What they really want is just to be among the

big players. The coming 20 to 30 years will be the era of

the US and China. They are preparing for this game."

Beijing wants a bigger share of votes at the IMF, to

reflect its rapidly growing economy. But before the G20, it

did not want to contribute from its massive foreign

reserves to increasing the Fund's resources because China

is still, per capita, a poor country. In the end, Mr Brown

announced that Beijing would contribute $40bn, alongside

$100bn each from the EU and Japan, as part of a $500bn

total. "The crisis emphasises that China is a pivotal world

player," says Bobo Lo of the Centre for European Reform in

London. "It might not be a global superpower yet, but it

has accelerated that trend."

If China is a cautious winner, Russia is the most obvious

loser from the upheaval. The choice of the G20 as the

crisis forum rather than the G8 has abolished Russia's

privileged position as the only outsider at the same table

as the wealthiest countries. At the G20 it is one of many

middle-sized economies, such as South Korea and Turkey.

But Russia's weakness is more fundamental. The oil price

may rise and fall but the crisis has exposed its failure to

diversify beyond the energy sector. Its financial

institutions are inefficient, its judicial system corrupt.

In the longer term, it faces a chronic demographic crisis

likely to result in severe labour shortages in the next two

decades. What of the rest of Europe in the new world order?

Like Russia, the continent has an ageing, shrinking

population. Slow growth is inevitable, although most west

European economies have the reserves and the social safety

net to cope with the recession. That is not true of eastern


For the EU, the risk is that solidarity within the Union

will crack, as sneaking protectionism undermines the single

market and the old member states show reluctance to bail

out the new ones that face acute social crises, with a

freeze on bank credit and investment.

The outcome of the G20 - reinforcement of the international

financial institutions and a big emphasis on regulation -

is what Europe wanted. But it may be a mixed blessing. On

the one hand, Europeans have a strong voice in the

institutions, especially the IMF. But they will have to

give up some of that influence in exchange for China's

contribution and the representation of other developing


As for the G20 itself, the chemistry of the group is

unstable. But what seems clear is that without a firm line

from Barack Obama's new US administration, the outcome

would have been more feeble. It was Washington that wanted

to triple IMF resources. The EU was happy just to double

them. Mr Obama played the role of mediator.

France's Nicolas Sarkozy was the only one who insisted last

week that the crisis spelt the demise of "Anglo-Saxon

capitalism". Yet experience suggests that of all the

countries affected, the US has the greatest resilience and

capacity to recover quickly. The EU and Japan seem stuck in

sluggish growth and declining demographics. As for China,

the requirement to adapt from export-led growth to a

radical expansion of domestic demand could be a huge

political challenge. The Communist party will have to

countenance a much faster growth of the middle classes than

it has prepared for. A new world order may be replacing the

old - but it will be a bumpy ride.

Respect quest

When the Group of 20 leaders met last November, there were

great expectations that China, the world's only large

economy still firing on most cylinders, would make a hefty

contribution to the debate.

In the event, China shied away from grabbing a larger role,

saying that its main useful role was to keep its own

economy, worth one-tenth of global output, ticking over at

8 per cent real growth by means of a $570bn fiscal


Last week's G20 was different. Both in the run-up and at

the summit itself, there were clear signs that the economic

crisis has accelerated China's emergence as a big player.

Perhaps the most closely scrutinised bilateral meeting in

London was the first encounter between presidents Hu Jintao

and Barack Obama. China's leader came with a more

co-operative stance than before on boosting the

International Monetary Fund. He also showed Beijing could

not be bounced into positions it did not like when he

objected to an attempt by France's Nicolas Sarkozy to brand

Hong Kong and Macao as tax havens. Ahead of the summit,

too, Beijing was far more active. It let it be known that

the US could not expect China to help fund its enormous

deficit without something in return. It lectured Mr Obama's

new administration on the need to follow stimulus spending

with a renewed effort at fiscal consolidation.

More startling still, a few days before the summit, Zhou

Xiaochuan, governor of China's central bank, suggested that

the IMF enlarge the scope of special drawing rights, its

unit of account, so that SDRs could challenge the dollar as

a global reserve currency.

Ben Simpfendorfer, economist at Royal Bank of Scotland,

says that while that proposal is unrealistic, "it

demonstrates global leadership and underscores the rise of

the east". China, he says, is staking a claim for its

renminbi to become the de facto Asian currency unit, which

would help consolidate its emergence as regional leader.

Shi Yinhong, a politics professor at Beijing's Renmin

university, says China knows that for now it has little

choice but to keep bankrolling the US. But in return for

buying a currency it suspects will one day collapse, it

will seek more respect for its views on issues including

arms sales to Taiwan, Tibetan independence and its

activities in countries such as Sudan.

Indeed, there are already signs that Beijing's strengthened

financial leverage is paying political dividends. When

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, visited China in

February, she said human rights "cannot interfere" with

bigger economic and diplomatic priorities. That Mrs

Clinton, of all people, should adopt such a restrained tone

shows just how far things have tipped in Beijing's favour.


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