Europe’s four-largest economies – Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy – have decided to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a China-led regional bank designed to finance infrastructure projects in areas such as energy, transportation and communication in Asia. China is set to provide up to 50% of the bank’s $50 billion initial capital. Initiated in October 2014, the AIIB is seen as a potential rival to the US-based World Bank and this partly explains why Washington put pressure on the European allies to stay out from the China-led bank.
Yet, the US appears to have overlooked the extent of the monetary connections established between Europe and China in recent times. The two have, in fact, boosted monetary relations through currency-swap agreements, yuan bank clearing, and support for each other’s currency – the euro and the renminbi.
Today, the renminbi is the world’s second most used trade finance currency and the seventh-ranked global payments currency. The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has in the past few years signed bilateral currency swap agreements worth more than 3 trillion yuan ($480 billion) with 28 central banks and monetary authorities.
More than 50 central banks have so far added the Chinese currency to their portfolios as growing trade ties and a growing number of reforms by Beijing are leading reserve managers to view it as a viable reserve currency. Most of Europe’s major central banks have added – or are considering adding – the Chinese currency to their portfolio, often at the expense of the dollar. In October 2014, for instance, the United Kingdom raised 3 billion yuan via a landmark offshore sovereign yuan bond and kept the proceeds into its foreign exchange reserves rather than converting them into dollars.
In October 2013, the PBOC and the European Central Bank (ECB) signed a bilateral currency swap agreement for a sum of €45billion (RMB350 billion), the largest ever signed by Beijing outside the region. In November 2014, the ECB decided to add the Chinese yuan to its foreign-currency reserves.
The PBOC has also designated a number of yuan clearing banks, known as RMB Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor (RQFII). Half of these ‘renminbi hubs’ are in Europe, in places like London, Frankfurt, Paris, Luxemburg and Prague. In January 2015, China’s and Switzerland’s central banks signed a RQFII agreement, making Zurich the newest hub for renminbi trading.
China’s ultimate goal is to make the yuan one of the main currencies for global trade and to place limits on the role of the dollar in the international monetary system. Since 2008, Chinese officials and scholars have maintained that the US is abusing its position as controller of the main reserve currency by pursuing irresponsible economic policies. An op-ed by Xinhua agency on 13 October 2013 did not hesitate to call for a ‘de-Americanized’ world.
The euro is seen in Beijing as a counterbalance to the dollar and instrumental for creating a multipolar currency order where the renminbi would also have its place. Consequently, China has divested away from the dollar in recent years and into the euro. Today, euro-denominated assets represent around one-third of China’s total foreign currency reserves which, at more than US$4 trillion, are the world’s largest.
Eurozone governments and institutions have actively courted Chinese purchases of euro-denominated assets. Since its establishment in May 2010, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) – replaced in October 2012 by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) – has actively sought Beijing’s support, obtaining concrete pledges for the purchase of Portuguese, Irish and Greek bailout bonds auctioned by the EFSF/ESM €440 billion rescue fund.
Monetary relations between China and Europe are expected to intensify in the future, challenging the dominant position of the dollar. If the issue is not handled with attention, there is risk of a serious transatlantic rift.