The eighth and final Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) of the Obama administration will take place in Beijing next week. On the economic side, it will be difficult this year to make progress on specific outcomes; but it’s an important year for having a frank conversation about macroeconomic and financial policies.
One reason that it will be hard to get specific outcomes is that the Chinese leadership has shown that economic reform doesn’t rank very high on its list of priorities. After laying out an ambitious reform agenda in its Third Plenum resolution in 2013, implementation of reform has been slow, except in some aspects of financial reform. Recent speeches have emphasized the need to close zombie firms and clean up non-performing loans in the banking system, but specific plans have been modest.
In terms of the agenda between China and the United States, the most important issue is negotiating a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT). Many important sectors are still closed to inward direct investment in China. It would help China’s transition to a new growth model to open up these sectors to competition and to private investment, and a BIT is a smart way to commit to these reforms. However, China has been slow to produce a credible offer on the BIT because enterprises and ministries with vested interests have opposed opening up and the leadership is apparently not willing to take them on.
Another factor affecting this S&ED is that it is the last for the Obama administration. I would argue that this is a good time for China and the United States to demonstrate that regular, high-level exchange produces results, increasing the likelihood that whatever administration comes next will want to maintain something similar. However, it is more likely that Chinese leaders will want to wait and see what administration they will be dealing with and to save deliverables for those future negotiations.
S&ED is an opportunity for the top economic officials in the two countries to frankly discuss their policy choices and to avoid mistakes that can come from miscommunication.
My experience with the first four S&EDs was that the conversation was more important than the deliverables, which have often been modest, incremental steps. This year, China will be very interested in hearing what the Federal Reserve thinks. May labor market data will be published on June 3, just in advance of the S&ED, so there may be more clarity about when the Fed is likely to raise interest rates. Regardless of when the Fed moves, both China and the United States have an interest in seeing a relatively stable exchange rate for the yuan. China’s central bank officials have emphasized that the country still has a large current account surplus, so depreciation of the trade-weighted exchange rate is not warranted. Depreciation would exacerbate imbalances and would work against the transformation of China’s growth model because it favors industry at the expense of services.
But if the Fed continues to normalize interest rates and the dollar rises against other major currencies, China does not want to follow the dollar up. Hence, its emphasis on stable value of the currency relative to a basket. S&ED is an opportunity for the top economic officials in the two countries to frankly discuss their policy choices and to avoid mistakes that can come from miscommunication. The most important outcome of the S&ED may well be avoidance of policy mistakes, a subtle outcome that will not be reflected in headlines.