Getting China to Play Ball on Balanced Growth and More from the G-20

Writing in the Financial Times about the four things that stood out to him about the G-20 Summit, Philip Stephens points first to "China’s, albeit reluctant, embrace of multilateralism:"

Beijing is at last owning up to the fact that it is a leading actor on the global stage. A year or so ago, China was still clinging on to an essentially passive role in international affairs. Western injunctions for it to act as a responsible stakeholder in the multilateral system were met with protestations that such demands were premature: China was still a developing country, and it prized non-interference above western concepts of mutual dependence.

The global economic crisis upended that strategy by showing that Beijing cannot detach its domestic from its international interests. True, China has had a good crisis, demonstrating that it can continue to grow while the west is in recession. But the collapse of its exports has served as a potent reminder of the inextricable ties woven by globalisation.

This interdependence is taken for granted in western capitals. For Beijing it carries the uncomfortable implication that states have a legitimate interest in the framing of others' domestic policies.

This interdependence led to, as Stephens points out, China's headline grabbing climate change announcement, an important marker on the road to Copenhagen. Frankly though, that work by China, in the interplay between domestic and international politics, was a fairly easy calculation. China has already made a strategic decision to develop a home-grown renewable energy industry, this was a logical move.

Rather, the heavy lift for China will come in the commitment to balanced growth from the G-20. China’s consumers are notoriously reticent to, well, consume. And it's virtually entirely due to policy. As Michael Pettis, a professor at Peking University, writes in the New York Times:

The Chinese save such a high fraction of their income largely because of long-standing policies aimed at promoting and subsidizing domestic investment and manufacturing.

These policies inevitably require households to foot the bill, primarily through sluggish wage growth, low interest rates on their bank deposits, an undervalued currency and a weak social safety net. Since total savings is just the difference between what is produced and what is consumed, subsidizing producers at the expense of household consumers necessarily causes savings to rise.

Since, as NDN's Rob Shapiro writes, there is little chance of the U.S. bailing the world out of the great recession, there is, as Pettis says, a scary possible outcome to rebalancing:

As the U.S. rebalances its economy toward higher savings rates, China has no choice but to rebalance toward higher consumption rates. This can happen either because of a sharp pick-up in consumption growth or, more likely, a sharp slowdown in GDP growth. I worry that China will find it difficult to generate the kind of consumption growth that will take up some of the American slack, and we may be locked into a period during which the world adjusts by growing more slowly.

This G-20 seems to have been more successful than many would have thought, but the real crux of the global economic recovery may lie in getting the world's rising powers to connect their people to the global marketplace. As China adjusts to the responsibilities that come with others having a stake in their domestic economic policies, it will inevitably do what everyone else does: balance that responsibility with domestic politics. (Perhaps Chinese leadership will see fit to develop a social safety net in the form of universal healthcare; all the socialists are doing it these days.)

More from the G-20:

20 heads are better than 7 – NYT: Global Economic Forum to Expand Permanently

FT: World Leaders to Expand G20 Powers:

Rich countries will agree to give up 5 per cent of the total voting shares to be distributed to under-represented countries, including rapidly growing emerging economies such as China. The aim is to increase the legitimacy of these institutions. The leaders have agreed to put aside disagreements over the representation in the governing bodies of these institutions.

Lula – Rising powers doing their part (let them do more by concluding Doha):

Policies adopted by countries in the Global South have created tens of millions of new consumers, who will drive the recovery of the global economy.

WSJ Environmental Capital blog - Fossil-fuel subsidies to be phased out in the "medium run."

Developing countries—many of the same ones that are demanding that rich countries underwrite their transition to a clean-energy economy—spent $310 billion in 2007 to subsidize fossil-fuel consumption, the International Energy Agency says.

Stop spending so much to keep gasoline, diesel, and electricity artificially cheap, in other words, and you’ll have the cash to promote clean energy at home.