Sean O'Grady: China will overtake America, the only question is when

Few things would be more powerfully symbolic of the shift in the balance of global economic power than to have oil traded in the Chinese renminbi rather than the American dollar.

True, no one is going to price a barrel of West Texas Intermediate Crude in renminbi tomorrow. But you can see how that could change. Oil is traded in dollars for economic reasons – not sentimental ones. The oil business pretty much started in the US (vividly portrayed in the film There Will be Blood), the giant oil companies are still mostly American, and the US has long been the world's largest consumer, importer and one of the largest producers of oil. The presidency of George W Bush offered ample evidence of the intimate connections between politics and oil. And the dollar is easily the most traded currency in the world. As such, it makes sense to trade oil in dollars.

Yet the financial tectonic plates are shifting – fast. Yesterday the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, articulated what must be weighing on the minds of many Western policy-makers. A legacy of the current crisis "may be a recognition of changed economic power relations". In other words, the recession has accelerated the rise of China. The brutal truth is that for most of the next decade China's economy will grow by more than 10 per cent a year; America's by less than 2 per cent. China will soon be the world's largest economy, and largest creditor nation, a position enjoyed by a pre-eminent America in the 1950s. China will also be the largest consumer of oil, which will help push trading in it and other commodities towards a "basket" of currencies.

Now America is the world's greatest debtor, she can no longer sustain her role as protector of the world's only reserve currency in the long term. The humbling of Wall Street was proof that the American system was not invincible. Suddenly, a G20 embracing China, India and the other emerging powers is the only forum that matters. China has helped bail out our banks. Spats with the Americans and Europeans are set to grow more bitter. Yesterday the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, resumed their attack on the value of the yuan. Next will come an increasing US resentment at the vast debts built up with China, and, in turn, Chinese nervousness about their long-term worth.

And that is the paradox. China holds approaching $3 trillion in dollar assets, so she cannot afford to see the dollar collapse. Longer term, China does want to become less reliant on the dollar as a place to keep its savings. America needs China to buy her Treasury bills; and China needs America to buy her exports. They are like two drunken giants leaning on each other. Yet a sobering reckoning of some sorts seems inevitable; and it is difficult to see how both can be winners.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Graduate Application Support Analyst

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Reach Volunteering: External Finance Trustee Needed!

Voluntary post, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Would you ...

Christine McCleave: FP&A Analyst

£36,000 - £40,000: Christine McCleave: Are you looking for a new opportunity a...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot