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China changes the whole world.
1,199 words
23 January 2008
Financial Times
Surveys WLD1
Page 2
(c) 2008 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved

The world is changing China. But China is also changing the world. It is the world's fastest growing country and the biggest capital exporter; it possesses the largest foreign currency reserves and is already the world's third-largest trading entity; it is the largest consumer of metals and the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide; and, quite soon, it will also be the world's largest consumer of primary energy.

China's high savings, rapid industrialisation and openness to the world economy have had four big consequences.

First, its growth is resource-intensive. By 2006, China already consumed 32 per cent of the world's steel, 25 per cent of the world's aluminium, 23 per cent of the world's copper, 30 per cent of the world's zinc and 18 per cent of the world's nickel.

While China consumed only 7.1 per cent of the world's oil in 2006, this was up from 4.7 per cent in 2000. More important, according to the latest World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency, China accounted for 31 per cent of the global incremental demand for oil between 2000 and 2006, against less than 20 per cent for the whole of North America.

China will overtake the US to become the world's largest energy consumer "soon after 2010", says the IEA, even though its economy will still be only about a third that of the US, in size, at market prices. It is, furthermore, already the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. By 2015, according to the IEA, its emissions are likely to be a third bigger than those of the US.

Second, China is having a big impact on global prices (in dollars). When China entered the world economy as a rapidly growing exporter of labour-intensive manufactures, with an exchange rate pegged to the dollar and declining unit costs of Chinese labour, it lowered world prices of its exports, in US dollars. China's emergence, then, had a disinflationary impact.

In recent years, however, China's impact has become inflationary. Its demand has helped raise the dollar prices of commodities: between January 2003 and January 2008 alone, the world price of metals rose by 180 per cent and of energy by 170 per cent, according to Goldman Sachs, in good part because of China's demand. But prices of China's exports are beginning to rise in terms of dollars, partly because of appreciation of the renminbi and partly because of rising wages in its export-oriented industries.

Third, China is also having a big effect on world trade. Its gross merchandise exports jumped from around Dollars 200bn a year at the turn of this decade to Dollars 1,141bn in the 12 months to August 2007 - a more than five-fold rise over just seven years. China is already the world's second largest exporter of goods, after Germany, but ahead of the US. At present rates of growth, it will become the world's largest exporter of goods within a few years.

In 2006, China's exports and imports of goods, together, were Dollars 1,760bn. This was still well behind the comparable figure for the US, at Dollars 2,958bn, and the European Union (excluding internal trade), at Dollars 3,180bn. But in perhaps as little as five years and almost certainly not more than 10, China should surpass the US and EU as a trading entity.

Finally, China has become a huge capital exporter. China's current account surplus has exploded upwards in recent years, from Dollars 69bn, or 3.6 per cent of GDP as recently as 2004, to a recent forecast of Dollars 378bn, or 11.9 per cent of GDP, by the World Bank for 2007. This year, its current account surplus will be much the biggest in the world and as big as the surpluses of Germany and Japan together. As a share of GDP, China's surplus is more than double the largest surplus Japan has ever generated.

The capital outflows that are the unavoidable counterpart of China's enormous current account surpluses, together with the continued inflow of foreign direct investment, has overwhelmingly taken the form of accumulations of official foreign currency reserves. These rose from less than Dollars 200bn at the beginning of this year to Dollars 1,455bn in October 2007, a quarter of the global total and more than two-fifths of GDP. China's reserves are now more than Dollars 500bn bigger than those of Japan.

China, then, is not just being changed by the world economy but, in turn, changing it greatly. As its economy grows, its impact is also bound to increase. China must be aware of difficulties ahead in three main areas.

One difficulty is over the sustainability of China's resource-intensive path of development. To illustrate the difficulties, the World Energy Outlook notes that if oil consumption per head of China and India reached US levels, the increase would be 60m barrels a day, roughly twice today's production rate. World consumption of 240m barrels a day would exhaust ultimately recoverable oil and natural gas liquid resources in perhaps 26 years.

Similarly, if CO 2 emissions per head from China and India reached US levels, world emissions would be three times higher than today. As the IEA remarks: "The implications for climate change of such an increase could be catastrophic". It would imply an explosive rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide to more than triple pre-industrial levels by the end of this century.

Another difficulty is over China's role in the global trading system. As its exports soar and its current account surplus explodes upwards, the protectionist backlash seems certain to grow. This is normal. But it is made worse by the pegged exchange rate. Despite enormous increases in the country's exports and trade and current account surpluses, the real exchange rate has been roughly constant over the last decade. Between July 2005, when the renminbi started to appreciate, and the middle of December 2007, it rose by just 12.3 per cent against the US currency

The third difficulty is over China's position in the global macro-economy. The explosive rise of China's savings surplus, shown in the huge current account surpluses, makes balancing demand and supply in the world economy also increasingly difficult. Changes in these policies should not be viewed as a concession to foreigners. The present course of China's domestic and external imbalances must also create substantial difficulties for China itself, including the likelihood of significant losses on its vast foreign currency reserves.

China has, in short, achieved a significant position in the world economy. But its current path, with its ever greater demand for resources, ever-rising share of world trade and ever-growing current account surpluses and reserve accumulations will have to change. China must decide how far it is going to control the pace and nature of those changes, rather than be controlled by them.

Martin Wolf is the FT's Chief Economics Commentator .

10:20 a. m.  

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