Why China's Currency Isn't America's Biggest Problem

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The value of China's currency--the renminbi--is a perennial thorn in the side of Sino-American economic negotiations. The U.S. claims an undervalued Chinese currency renders Chinese exports to the U.S. cheaper and American exports to China more expensive, widening the U.S. trade deficit. On Monday, three Democratic senators, claiming that China's currency is undervalued by as much as 40 percent, called for a bill that would empower the Departments of Treasury and Commerce to investigate the issue.

But when President Obama convenes Chinese and American business leaders to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao later this afternoon as part of Hu's state visit, some analysts believe currency issues will be overshadowed by concerns about Chinese trade barriers and intellectual property theft. Why might corporate America be shifting its focus from currency manipulation to the difficulty of doing business in China?

  • New Battle Is About Market Access, state Helene Cooper and Mark Landler at The New York Times. American manufacturing and high-tech companies are bumping up against a host of Chinese trade restrictions in China, they explain: "It is no longer just a fight over cheap Chinese textile, electronic and toy imports. China won that battle years ago. Now the question-- reminiscent of trade tensions with Japan in the 1980s--is whether General Electric and Microsoft and other American companies that dearly want to expand into China's rapidly expanding markets will find themselves beaten at their own game by Chinese companies, backed by the Chinese government."
  • And China's Protectionist Industrial Policy Is Expanding, explains Fortune's Nina Easton: "This China-first policy has been uppermost in the minds of foreign executives visiting the country. This has been especially true over the past year as they increasingly find themselves playing whack-a-mole with new rules that pop up seemingly out of nowhere, or are forced to consider whether it's worth allowing access to their technology for 'co-innovation' or 're-innovation' by Chinese companies in return for procurement contracts."
  • China's Trade Violations Are Out of Control, asserts Larry Kudlow at RealClearMarkets: "They're stealing our technology, violating all sorts of patent-protection laws, hacking into Google, and infringing on intellectual-property rights. In fact, 80 percent of Chinese software is reportedly pirated from American companies." Kudlow adds that "U.S.-China currency stability is greatly to be desired" but laments that stability requires "a high degree of currency- and monetary-policy cooperation--of a sort that is nowhere on the radar screen."
  • Stronger Chinese Currency Probably Won't Boost U.S. Jobs and Exports, contends Mark Wu at the Times:

I recently did an analysis of the top American exports to our 20 leading foreign markets, and found little evidence that an undervalued Chinese currency hurts American exports to third countries ... By and large, [China and America] are going after entirely different product markets; we market things like airplanes and pharmaceuticals while China sells electronics and textiles.

Finally, it is unlikely that a stronger renminbi would bring many jobs back home. Instead, companies would most likely shift labor-intensive production to Vietnam, Indonesia and other low-wage countries. And in any case many high-skilled jobs will continue to flow overseas, as long as cheaper talent can be found in India and elsewhere. Only in a few industries, like biomedical devices, would a stronger Chinese currency combined with quality issues tempt American companies to keep more manufacturing at home.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.