One story that’s been covered extensively in these pages over the past several months is the emergence of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The bank began to attract quite a bit of attention in early March when the UK decided, much to Washington’s chagrin, to make a bid for membership. The dominoes fell quickly after that and within a month it was quite clear that The White House’s effort to discourage its allies from supporting the new institution had failed in dramatic fashion.
Since then, China has been careful not to jeopardize the overwhelming support the bank has received. While Beijing is keen on expanding China’s regional influence and promoting the widespread use of the yuan, downplaying the idea that the new bank will become a tool of Chinese foreign policy is critical if it hopes to enjoy the long-term support of the many traditional US allies who have become early adopters so to speak. Similarly, China must be sensitive to the perception that the AIIB is the first step towards usurping the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and although Beijing has dispelled the notion of “yuan hegemony” as nonsensical, it’s clear that the renminbi will play a key role in loans made from the new bank.
So while the AIIB certainly represents an attempt on China’s part to realize its regional ambitions (what we’ve described as the establishment of a Sino-Monroe Doctrine) and carve out a foothold for the yuan on the global stage, it’s also a product of Washington’s failure to adapt to a changing world. That is, the establishment of new supranational lenders suggests the US-dominated multilateral institutions that have characterized the post-war world are proving unable (for whatever reason) to meet the needs of modernity.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the IMF, where reforms aimed at making the Fund more reflective of its membership have been stymied by Congressional ineptitude for years. As Bloomberg reports, the US has apparently learned very little from the AIIB experience:
The Obama administration signaled it won’t jeopardize the U.S. power to veto IMF decisions to achieve its goal of giving China and other emerging markets more clout at the lender, according to people familiar with the matter.
That message was delivered at the International Monetary Fund’s spring meetings in Washington last month, the people said, where officials discussed how to overcome congressional opposition to a 2010 plan to overhaul the lender’s voting structure.
A solution backed by Brazil would have enabled an end-run around Congress -- while potentially sacrificing the veto the U.S. has held since World War II. With that option off the table, the people said, IMF member nations are considering a watered-down proposal that risks alienating China and India, which are already challenging the postwar economic order by setting up their own lending and development institutions…
The 2010 plan calls for increasing the emerging markets’ sway through a doubling of the IMF’s capital, with the U.S. contribution subject to approval by Congress. Without that approval, the plan wouldn’t have the support of the required 85 percent of members’ voting shares, because the U.S. has 16.7 percent. Voting rights are proportional to capital shares at the fund.
China, the world’s second-largest economy, currently ranks sixth in its voting shares at the IMF, behind Japan, Germany, France and the U.K. Under the 2010 plan, China would jump to third, while India would climb to eighth from 11th and Brazil would move up four spots to 10th.
The option backed by Brazil and other countries would have pushed through the changes without requiring Congress to ratify them. The catch was that the U.S. veto over major IMF decisions may have been at risk if Congress failed to react by approving the 2010 plan, because America’s voting share would potentially fall below the 15 percent threshold needed to maintain the power…
The fund is now considering a capital increase of just 10 percent, said the people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are confidential. Most of the boost would go to emerging nations that are underrepresented based on the size of their economies.
The solution is unlikely to satisfy some emerging economies because the capital increase is too small, said Truman, now a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
In a column last month, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers cited Congress’s failure to pass the IMF reforms as one of the reasons why China is pushing to reshape the global economic order with new institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
* * *
In many ways, the above represents everything that's wrong in Washington. First, Congress' famous inability to do what they were elected to do (i.e. legislate) is on full display. Second, the President is unwilling to bypass an ineffectual group of lawmakers in the name of accomplishing something worthwile because the end-around would require the US to give up absolute control over an institution that by its very nature should not be controlled by one nation. Finally, you have yet another example of the US learning absolutely nothing from egregious foreign policy mistakes even when they occurred less than two months ago.
This is all par for the course in Washington so we suppose the real question is what this means for China's IMF SDR bid. That is, will Beijing simply lose interest if the US-controlled IMF can't agree on a structure which reflects China's growing influence on the world stage?