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Yuan issue looms over planned U.S.-PRC talks

Analysts say currency dispute could lead to trade war if no concessions are made

Chinese workers toil in a garment factory in Beijing in this file photo. With a critical round of trade talks with Washington opening on Wednesday, Ch...

Chinese workers toil in a garment factory in Beijing in this file photo. With a critical round of trade talks with Washington opening on Wednesday, Ch...

Shi Xianbin has watched with alarm as China's currency has risen against the U.S. dollar, driving his small textile company to slash prices to stay competitive abroad.
Shi, manager of the Shanghai Bin Bin Yuan Import & Export Co., said if the yuan rises another 2 percent, his privately owned, 10-employee company will face "lots of losses."
"We cannot survive," he said.
With a critical round of trade talks with Washington opening Wednesday, Chinese leaders are pointing to the potential financial troubles of firms like Shi's in resisting U.S. demands to let the yuan rise faster to trim China's ballooning trade surplus.
The U.S. trade deficit with China, which hit a record US$232.5 billion last year, has become a heated political target for both Democrats and Republicans, illustrating what they say are unfair, predatory Chinese trade practices.
China is sending as many as 16 minister-level officials to the talks. Issues are expected to range from environmental problems to opening aviation routes and financial services.
But the currency dispute is expected to dominate. China's intransigence is worsening an already sour mood in Washington, analysts said, strengthening those who want to punish Beijing if it fails to act to narrow the trade gap.
Chinese officials are failing to understand the intensity of anger in Washington and could face a backlash if they fail to find a way to mollify U.S. critics, said Jason Kindopp, chief Asia analyst for the consulting firm Eurasia Group.
"This could lead to a real trade war," Kindopp said. "It happened with our close ally Japan during the '70s and '80s. Why couldn't it happen with China?"
On Friday, in a move clearly timed to show Chinese flexibility ahead of the meeting, Beijing announced changes to its exchange rate system that could let the yuan rise faster. Authorities said they would widen the daily trading limit to 0.5 percent above or below the previous day's closing value, up from 0.3 percent.
Still, it wasn't clear whether the limited change was enough to satisfy American critics.
Trying to head off a row, the top Chinese envoy to the May 23-24 "strategic economic dialogue" has appealed to Washington to be coolheaded and avoid wrecking a thriving trade relationship.
"Attempts to politicize trade issues should be resisted," Vice Premier Wu Yi wrote in a commentary Thursday in The Wall Street Journal.
U.S. and Chinese officials have been traveling to each other's capitals in recent months trying to tee up other issues more likely to produce agreement. Chinese officials say the area where the two sides are most likely to reach agreement is cooperation in environmental protection.
But the leader of the U.S. delegation, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, has said Chinese action on the yuan - rather than market opening, anti-piracy or other areas - is the benchmark by which he would measure Beijing's progress.
Critics have charged that Beijing keeps the yuan undervalued, some say by as much as 40 percent, to make its exports cheaper, creating an unfair price advantage that fuels its trade surplus.
Under pressure, Beijing broke a direct link between the yuan and the dollar in July 2005 and revalued the currency by 2.1 percent. Since then, it has allowed the currency to rise 5.3 percent against the dollar in tightly controlled trading. Economists expect an increase of 4 to 7 percent over the course of 2007 under the current system.
Washington is pushing for faster action, saying that the undervalued yuan is contributing to a loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. A stronger yuan would make Chinese exports less attractive to American consumers and U.S. goods more competitive in China.
A pair of U.S. legislators have introduced a bill that would enable companies to seek tariffs on Chinese goods in retaliation for its currency policies, though a similar measure in 2005 failed.
Senators Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat; Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican; Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat; and Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, say they are working on a China currency bill and plan to introduce it in June.
Wu, the trade envoy, noted that some American lawmakers want punitive action. But instead of offering conciliatory gestures, she rejected such sentiments as irresponsible.
"Some even advocate trade protectionism," she wrote. "Such irresponsible acts can only obstruct economic globalization and hinder the fundamental interests of both China and the U.S., our peoples and the sustainable and steady growth of the world economy."
A rise of 10 percent in the yuan could lead to the loss of 5.5 million jobs in China, according to a report by the Chinese central bank. It said companies hardest hit would be those that make textiles, furniture, shoes and toys for export.
"If the yuan rises by another 5 percent, our profits will be totally wiped out," said Li Shaoxiong, deputy general manager of the Fujian Ala Shoe Co., which sold half its 2006 output of 6 million pairs of athletic shoes to American retailers.
Beijing is counting on such labor-intensive light manufacturers to create millions of new jobs. Even though its bustling economy is expected to grow by more than 10 percent this year, a big share of that is in heavier manufacturing and other industries that create fewer jobs.
"Overall, this is a political thing. Will some companies suddenly have to close down, and will this cause opposition and political repercussions?" said Yiping Huang, an economist with Citigroup Inc.
Chinese officials have ruled out any sharp revaluations in response to U.S. pressure, insisting at a briefing this week on the Washington trip that such a step might disrupt the economy.
"Companies are all complaining about the yuan appreciation. Both sides are under pressure. We need a balance," said a Finance Ministry official, who spoke on condition he was not identified by name.
Officials at the briefing told reporters that they were frustrated in dealing with a Congress whose members turn local factory closings into international trade disputes.
There is a "massive misunderstanding" between Beijing and Washington that has left China believing "political theater" that produces no firm agreements next week will defuse tensions, Kindopp said.
"I think that Wu Yi and her team have not been fully briefed from her own underlings on the rising political pressures," he said, "and some of this stuff has taken them by surprise."

Updated : 2021-10-16 13:57 GMT+08:00