David Prosser: China's push for power is irresistible

Wednesday 07 October 2009 00:00

Outlook Quite a day then for asset prices. By the close of play last night, the gold price had hit an all-time high, oil was up sharply too, the dollar had

suffered a corresponding fall, and the FTSE 100 index had risen 2 per cent despite some decidedly patchy domestic economic news.

Underlying all of those asset price movements was a common thread: a report in The Independent yesterday by my colleague Robert Fisk which revealed secret negotiations between China and the Middle East, as well as several other interested nations, to reprice oil using a basket of currencies rather than the dollar.

That report damaged the value of the US currency, which has the effect of boosting the dollar-denominated oil price. Gold was up because it is likely to be part of the basket to which oil prices will eventually switch – dollar weakness helped its case too – while the Footsie rose thanks primarily to miners and energy companies which benefit from that inflation.

What all this tells you is that the world's markets simply do not believe the denials of the story that have been issued by several countries. Saying so may not suit those countries which have strong political relationships with the US to worry about, but it would be remarkable if talks about repricing oil had not taken place. Indeed, China, the prime mover in these talks, has already openly floated the idea of ending the dollar's reserve currency status, and has never made a secret of its views on the matter.

Nor would it be reasonable to expect China to keep mum. Economists at HSBC – an institution that has already recognised the way the wind is blowing by announcing a move of its head office from London to Hong Kong – put it bluntly in their latest briefing paper. "We have reached a tipping point in global economic affairs," they say.

The bank's forecast is that the emerging economic nations of the world will produce average growth of 6 per cent next year – for China the projection is 9.5 per cent – while the developed economies will manage just 1.8 per cent (rising to 2.8 per cent in the US).

This won't be a one-off because the gap reflects the strengths of the emerging economies rather than the weakness of the West, as HSBC points out. China's improving political relationships with the Western nations has made investing there much easier while information technology has transformed the practical considerations. China's low per capita income gives it plenty of headroom to chase the West and its banking system has come through the credit crisis in good shape.

On conservative estimates, China's economy will be larger than that of the US by 2030 – IMF figures suggest 2018, the date by which these oil price talks are expected to come to fruition is even possible – and could be double its size by 2050.

Moreover, that growth will be commodity intensive, with basic infrastructure sucking up natural resources. China has already begun an enormous push to secure these assets, using the credit crisis and the global slowdown as an opportunity for massive investment overseas – the latest mooted deal, for instance, would see it buy up much of the Nigerian oil industry. It has already signed such agreements in Asia, Africa and South America.

In the context of China's economic power eclipsing that of the US and its insatiable demand for commodities, in what world would its demands for an end to a dollar oil price – should it make them – not be taken seriously?

Moreover, for many of the key players in this debate, striking a blow against the dominance of US economic power will offer a chance for some political payback, as well as reflecting the new world order. Remember how the US scuppered the Middle East takeover of American port facilities for political reasons, for example. Remember how only last month, the Obama administration unilaterally introduced new import duties on certain goods from China.

The scene is set. China – and others – have wanted to wrest power from the US. Soon they'll have the economic clout to achieve their goal. The markets know it: they do not believe the conspirators' protestations of innocence – or, for that matter, US insistence that the status quo can continue indefinitely.

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