Europe is drowning and needs a lifeline. A series of marathon meetings this week yielded a new set of proposals, but what they depend on is cash — and lots of it, perhaps trillions of dollars — to save Greece and the European banking system and to prevent financial contagion from spreading to Spain, Italy and even France, which would destroy the euro zone as we know it. Where to turn for help? The answer is obvious: China.
Indeed, the call by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France this week to President Hu Jintao of China, seeking support for the European Financial Stability Facility, could represent a major change in the global landscape: the consolidation of China’s economic dominance at the expense of the status quo powers — the United States and Europe.
Despite the agreement among Europe’s leaders on Thursday to recapitalize banks on the Continent, the reality is that Europe cannot muster this cash on its own. In part, this is because most countries are fiscally stretched and even Germany, with a debt-to-gross domestic product ratio above 80 percent, is reaching the limits of its check-writing ability. But it is also because Germany seems reluctant to transfer resources, either directly through fiscal means or indirectly through the European Central Bank.
And with a United States essentially sidelined because of its own economic and fiscal weakness, it is even less of a surprise that the S O S is going out to China. Only China, with its $3 trillion in reserves, is now able to provide the magnitudes of relief that Europe desperately needs.
What should China do? So far, it has opted not to be an active financier of the European countries threatened by crisis. But that is increasingly becoming a less tenable position. China is the world’s major exporter, and averting economic collapse in the indebted importing countries of Europe will be very much in China’s interest.
But China has a choice. It can help Europe bilaterally by back-stopping the stability facility, as Europe has requested, or by guaranteeing to buy Italian and Spanish bonds at a rate that would keep these countries’ finances sustainable (much as the European Central Bank ought to be doing). Or it can help by providing the International Monetary Fund with additional money to, in turn, lend to Europe.
From China’s perspective, the possible advantage would be to exert power to obtain direct and concrete benefits. For example, it could ask for market economy status in Europe, which would reduce the scope for protectionist action against Chinese goods entering the European market. It could also seek to buy companies in distressed countries on advantageous terms.
The risks in this bilateral approach are considerable. It would expose China to the charge of becoming enmeshed in European politics. Domestically, it would expose the government to the charge of privileging foreign investment at the expense of investing in what is still a poor country with great development needs and challenges.
Helping Europe by strengthening the I.M.F. and increasing its lending would avoid some of these political costs, especially since China would not be directly involved in European politics and problems. But China would have to receive something considerable in return for the extra resources that it would be providing.
China should demand nothing less than a wholesale revamping of the governance of the I.M.F. to reflect the current economic realities. Governance reform can no longer be just about the nationality of the I.M.F.’s managing director but should fundamentally be about who will have the greatest voice and exercise the most power in the new world.
Today, the United States and Europe each have effective veto power in the I.M.F. because important decisions require an 85 percent share of the vote. If China were to become the I.M.F.’s major financier it should have veto power on terms equivalent to those of the United States. Europe’s power should be reduced commensurate with its transition from creditor to potential borrower status. Supplicants, China should insist, cannot have veto power in a financial institution.
The Chinese government could then trumpet a nationalist achievement — equal status as the United States, and a greater status than that of Europe, in running the world’s premier financial institution — as the return for investing its cash abroad.
These demands would be legitimate and indeed be welcome for the world because they would tether China more firmly to, and create a stake for it in, the multilateral system. Those in the United States and Europe who would resist these changes should remember that the alternatives are worse. A China that uses its might bilaterally to gain narrow political advantages would be a worrying portent for the future when China becomes economically bigger and stronger. And a China that refuses to take the phone call at all could well push Europe off the cliff. Europeans are running out of options; debtors cannot be choosers.
By Arvind Subramanian, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the author of Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance.