Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett on ‘The Rise of the Petroyuan and the Slow Erosion of Dollar Hegemony’:
Since World War II, America’s geopolitical supremacy has rested not only on military might, but also on the dollar’s standing as the world’s leading transactional and reserve currency. Economically, dollar primacy extracts “seignorage” — the difference between the cost of printing money and its value — from other countries, and minimises U.S. firms’ exchange rate risk. Its real importance, though, is strategic: dollar primacy lets America cover its chronic current account and fiscal deficits by issuing more of its own currency – precisely how Washington has funded its hard power projection for over half a century.
Since the 1970s, a pillar of dollar primacy has been the greenback’s role as the dominant currency in which oil and gas are priced, and in which international hydrocarbon sales are invoiced and settled. This helps keep worldwide dollar demand high. It also feeds energy producers’ accumulation of dollar surpluses that reinforce the dollar’s standing as the world’s premier reserve asset, and that can be “recycled” into the U.S. economy to cover American deficits.
As China has emerged as a major player on the global energy scene, it has also embarked on an extended campaign to internationalise its currency. A rising share of China’s external trade is being denominated and settled in renminbi; issuance of renminbi-denominated financial instruments is growing. China is pursuing a protracted process of capital account liberalisation essential to full renminbi internationalisation, and is allowing more exchange rate flexibility for the yuan. The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) now has swap arrangements with over thirty other central banks — meaning that renminbi already effectively functions as a reserve currency.
Chinese policymakers appreciate the “advantages of incumbency” the dollar enjoys; their aim is not for renminbi to replace dollars, but to position the yuan alongside the greenback as a transactional and reserve currency. Besides economic benefits (e.g., lowering Chinese businesses’ foreign exchange costs), Beijing wants — for strategic reasons — to slow further growth of its enormous dollar reserves. China has watched America’s increasing propensity to cut off countries from the U.S. financial system as a foreign policy tool, and worries about Washington trying to leverage it this way; renminbi internationalisation can mitigate such vulnerability. More broadly, Beijing understands the importance of dollar dominance to American power; by chipping away at it, China can contain excessive U.S. unilateralism.