There are many reasons that the US is pushing on China in the South China Sea. Two articles have been published on Counterpunch in recent weeks exploring “why?” None mention an important economic reason that has, at least in part, motivated the US to go to war and is very much at stake in the growing dispute with China: the value of the dollar.
The dominance of the dollar in world trade is critical to its value and to the US economy. Once the US abandoned the gold standard, it signed firm agreements with Saudi Arabia and all of Middle East OPEC nations that bound them to sell oil in dollars. Because of this agreement the dollar is often referred to as the “petrodollar.” The value of the dollar/petrodollar rests on its being the currency of international trade, not only for oil, but for weapons and food and everything else.
Two Dollar Wars
As I discussed in a 2013 Counterpunch article, one reason Bush II invaded Iraq was because Iraq threatened the US by selling oil in Euros. If Sadam Hussein had been allowed to continue, this would have been a major challenge to the dominance of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Petroeuros could begin replacing petrodollars. This would have weakened the value of the dollar and undermined the US economy. That is an underpublicized reason for the elimination of Saddam Hussein. The value of the dollar was at stake as well as the health of our economy. The second Iraq war eliminated this threat and Iraqi oil was again sold in dollars.
Ron Paul made public this rationale but it has been given scant attention. “Saddam Hussein demanded Euros for his oil. His arrogance was a threat to the dollar; his lack of any military might was never a threat…There was no public talk of removing Saddam Hussein because of his attack on the integrity of the dollar as a reserve currency by selling oil in Euros. Many believe this was the real reason for our obsession with Iraq. I doubt it was the only reason, but it may well have played a significant role in our motivation to wage war.”
Ron Paul also made public the rationale for the surprising US-led removal of Gadhafi and the destruction of his government in Libya. Again, protecting the dollar was the main reason: Gadhafi was planning on selling oil in dinars, an all-gold African currency. According to Ron Paul, the US has targeted any country that threatens the dollar by using a non-dollar currency to conduct international business.
Loss of Confidence in the Dollar
The dollar has been the dominant currency of international trade since Nixon stopped dollars being exchanged for gold. Despite the challenges from Iraq and Libya, this arrangement continued a decade into the twenty-first century.
Two things happened during and after the 2008 crash to weaken confidence in the dollar. The first is not fully appreciated even by many financially astute Americans: the damage the USA did to developing nations when the USA suffered the crash. Short on funds at home, US financial loans were no longer providing developing nations the money they needed to continue with their projects. These countries haven’t forgotten the sudden and crippling loss of funds. The ever-present possibility that this can and will happen again has become an omnipresent nagging worry. These nations realize that relying on the dollar is relying on an external condition over which they have absolutely no control but which can, did, and may again have a devastating effect on their economies. The second was Bernanke’s qualitative easing that diluted the dollar into a mere shadow of its former self (which was already a diminished dollar from the 1971 gold-based dollar). Here are the Reserve Balances with Federal Reserve banks. On September 17, 2008, the Fed banks had $47 billion. On May 27, 2015, the amount was $2,510.791 billion “Bernanke dollars,” which is but a homeopathic dilution of the pre-Bernanke dollar.
Foreign countries noticed. The most vocal were Russia and China. In 2010, China Daily reported that “China and Russia… [intend] to renounce the US dollar and resort to using their own currencies for bilateral trade.” China and Russia, with three other nations, formed BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Reuters reported last July that BRICS was forming a “$100 billion development bank and a currency reserve pool in their first concrete step toward reshaping the Western-dominated international financial system.”
The Plan for the BRICS Bank
Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez interviewed Nobel prize winning American economist Joseph Stiglitz about the planned BRICS bank. Stiglitz said BRICS was very important:
“First, the need globally for more investment-in the developing countries, especially-is in the order of magnitude of trillions, couple trillion dollars a year. And the existing institutions just don’t have enough resources….[the new bank] is adding to the flow of money that will go to finance infrastructure, adaptation to climate change-all the needs that are so evident in the poorest countries.”
“Secondly, it reflects a fundamental change in global economic and political power, that one of the ideas behind this is that the BRICS countries today are richer than the advanced countries were when the World Bank and the IMF were founded. We’re in a different world…. The old institutions have not kept up.”
One big complaint was that people from other countries expected, in the 21st century, that people in the top positions of the IMF would “be chosen on the basis of merit, not just because you’re an American. And yet, the U.S. effectively reneged on that agreement.”
Gonzalez asked Stiglitz how China, which obviously has huge monetary reserves, and Brazil, which had its own development bank for several years, would work together as key players in this new BRICS bank.
“China has reserves in excess of $3 trillion,” answered Stiglitz. “One of the things is that it needs to use those reserves better than just putting them into U.S. Treasury bills. You know, my colleagues in China say that’s like putting meat in a refrigerator and then pulling out the plug, because the real value of the money put in U.S. Treasury bills is declining. So they say, ‘We need better uses for those funds,’ certainly better uses than using those funds to build, say, shoddy homes in the middle of the Nevada desert. You know, there are real social needs, and those funds haven’t been used for those purposes.”
Stiglitz then talked about Brazil. “Brazil has BNDES… a huge development bank, bigger than the World Bank. People don’t realize this, but Brazil has actually shown how a single country can create a very effective development bank. So, there’s a learning going on. And this notion of how you create an effective development bank, that actually promotes real development … is going to be an important part of the contribution that Brazil is going to make.”
China and Russia Trade without Using the Dollar
In October, 2014, in an exclusive interview with CNBC, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that the world must move away from its dependence on the U.S. dollar, arguing that the global economy would benefit from a more diversified currency system. “We have nothing against the dollar, but we believe that today’s currency system should be more balanced,” he said, calling for a greater number of major reserve currencies. In particular he said that the euro, the yuan, the pound and the dollar would be a good initial grouping. He mentioned BRICS as a group which was implementing this change. “A much more just financial system” was possible, he said.
Medvedev highlighted that when countries “really depend” on the dollar, they are beholden to the fortunes of the US. “The U.S. economy is now improving but we have no proof that it will not go down again, and then everyone will suffer,” he said. “We believe that we should move away from such dependency [on any one currency] in the world’s financial system.”
Medvedev pointed out that incorporating other currencies has allowed Russia to trade with China directly. “This is a good demonstration that if somebody leaves their place, another person occupies their place [italics mine],” he added. October’s agreements follow a high-profile gas supply deal with Gazprom, worth $400 billion, to supply China with gas over 30 years.
The 2014 China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Development Bank
In addition to being a founding member of BRINCS, the Chinese were forming a development back, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Development Bank (AIID). The US controlled the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Both of these institutions would face substantial competition if the Chinese development bank went forward. Combined with the BRICS bank, the new development bank would offer an international alternative to the dollar for trade.
According to the New York Times, “the United States, perhaps the most vocal of … critics… has not embraced the Chinese proposal. Instead, in quiet conversations with China’s potential partners, American officials have lobbied against the development bank with unexpected determination and engaged in a vigorous campaign to persuade important allies to shun the project, according to senior United States officials and representatives of other governments involved [italics mine].” The New York Times also reported the irrelevance of US critical arguments: “Washington’s arguments run up against undisputed needs on the ground in Asia – needs that existing institutions have been unable to meet, some development experts said. The Asian Development Bank estimated in 2009 that the region would need as much as $8 trillion in investments in physical infrastructure by 2020 – an amount that exceeds what it or the World Bank can muster, experts at the two banks said.”
In April of this year the deadline fell for nations to join China’s new Asian development bank. The Chinese were astonished at the last-minute applications by countries not considered especially friendly to Beijing. Among the surprises: Taiwan and 14 of the Group of 20. Japan is the only major Asian ally still standing with the Obama administration. Even Australia and South Korea had decided to join. In Europe, Britain was among the nations that joined, much to the irritation of the US.
Meanwhile, Putin announced the launch of the $100-billion BRICS New Development Bank. It will have another $100-billion as a currency reserve pool to shield the BRICS currencies from the world economy and market volatility. The launch is in July in Ufa, Russia. “We expect to reach agreement in Ufa on the launch of practical operations of the BRICS Bank and a pool of currency reserves,” Putin said. The bank will be a rival to the IMF and World Bank and will finance infrastructure projects in developing countries. It also will challenge the dollar as the currency of international trade.
A Plausible but Underemphasized Motive for Goading China
In his excellent CounterPunch article, Jack Smith wrote that the US goading of China “is happening for one main reason. The U.S. has arrogated world rule to itself, without authority, competition, or oversight, since the implosion of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago. There is nothing more important to America’s ruling elite. Every possible danger to Washington’s hegemony must be neutralized. And looming in East Asia is the cause of Washington’s worst anxieties — China.”
Smith is certainly correct as far as he goes. Hegemony has been an official US policy since the Soviet Union collapsed. But there is an aspect of this hegemony that Smith does not mention: protection of the dollar’s status as the dominant currency of world trade. China and Russia are creating alternatives that threaten the dollar’s status as the sole dominant international currency. By instituting trade alternatives to the dollar, they challenge the value of the dollar and so threaten the US economy.
Bart Gruzalski is a professor emeritus of Northeastern University, Boston. He has published three books and a number of articles online as well as in academic journals.