| China plans to let its currency trade freely on international markets by 2015 [EPA]
China is shifting some of its massive foreign holdings into gold and away from the US dollar, undermining the dollar's role as the world's reserve currency, according to a recently released WikiLeaks cable.
"They [the US and Europe] intend to weaken gold's function as an international reserve currency. They don’t want to see other countries turning to gold reserves instead of the US dollar or Euro," stated the 2009 cable, quoting Chinese Radio International. "China's increased gold reserves will thus act as a model and lead other countries towards reserving more gold."
The cable is titled "China increases its gold reserves in order to kill two birds with one stone". Taken together with recent policy announcements from Chinese banking officials, it may signal moves by China to eventually replace the US dollar as the world's reserve currency.
Last week, European business officials announced that China plans to make its currency, the yuan, fully convertible for trading on international markets by 2015. Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of China's central bank, said the offshore market for the yuan is "developing faster than we had imagined" but there is no definitive timetable for making the currency fully convertible. Presently, the yuan cannot be easily converted into other currencies, because of government restrictions.
China's gold holdings are small compared to other major economies. It has 1,054 tonnes, the sixth-largest reserves in the world, according to data from the World Gold Council.
Buying gold and allowing the yuan to be traded freely would weaken the US dollar's dominance as the international reserve currency. The move would have major implications, making it more expensive for the US government to borrow money and to run perpetual trade and budget deficits.
"The US is used to having the position of having the key reserve currency, but others are eager to replace it," said Josh Aizenman, a professor of economics at the University of California and president of the International Economics and Finance Society.
As a reserve currency, the US dollar is the default for international transactions. If, for example, a South Korean company wants to buy wine from Chile, chances are they will carry out the transaction in dollars. Both companies must then purchase dollars to conduct their business, leading to greater demand. The value of global commodities, such as oil, is also generally demarcated in US dollars.
Being a reserve currency allows the US to borrow at low interest rates, as central banks around the world are eager to buy US government debt. "Any country that can finance its expenditures by printing money or selling bonds is essentially getting a free lunch," Aizenman told Al Jazeera.
With China's apparent change of heart, that "free lunch" now might come with a hefty tab. Given the massive US trade deficit, average Americans might be sent to the restaurant's kitchen to wash dishes if the dollar loses its status as the world's reserve currency.
"China, until recently, was focusing on buying the US dollar through bonds," Aizeman said. Since the economic crisis, the US dollar has dropped compared to other major currencies, particularly the Swiss franc, Canadian dollar and Brazilian real. This leaves China in a bind, analysts said.
In March 2011, China held $3.04tn US dollars in reserves, Xinhua news agenecy reported. It is the largest holder of US treasuries, or government debt, with $1.166tn as of June 30, 2011, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Thus, major devaluation of the dollar would hurt China, as it would be left holding wads of worthless paper.
"If you owe the bank $100, that's your problem. If you owe the bank $100m, that's the bank's problem," American industrialist Jean Paul Getty once remarked, in a parable that sums up China's predicament.
"China is locked into a position where they cannot sell a big portion of their dollar reserves overnight without hurting themselves," Aizenman said. "It is too late for now to diversify rapidly the stock they have already accumulated."
The answer: Buy gold. Everyone seems to be doing it. The value of the glistening commodity, useless for most practical purposes, increased almost 400 per cent, from less than $500 an ounce in 2005 to about $1,900 in September.
"Gold has risen in value because of uncertainty in the world economy," said Mark Weisbrot, the co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, a think-tank in Washington. "Normally, gold would rise due to high inflation. It is a store of value that increases if there is inflation. But in this case it is going up because nobody knows where else to put their money."
In the WikiLeaks cable, China alleged that "the US and Europe have always suppressed the rising price of gold", but neither Weisbrot or Aizenman think such a policy is taking place or even possible.
Presently, China places strict controls on its currency, limiting foreigners from doing business in the yuan or trading it on foreign exchange markets. That could change in the next five years, according to governor Xiaochuan's recent announcement.
By owning such large reserves of US currency, and through controlling the yuan, China can keep its currency lower than it would be if it floated freely. This makes Chinese exports cheaper.
The relationship, in which Chinese investment in US government bonds allows low interest rates for Americans to buy Chinese products, has worked well for the last 15 years. In 2010, the US ran a $273.1bn trade deficit with China.
"We pay our debts in dollars so we can print money to pay our international debts," Weisbrot told Al Jazeera. Because of the dollar's status as a reserve currency, the US "can run trade deficits indefinitely" while borrowing internationally without serious repercussions, giving the world's largest economy a "big advantage", he said.
If gold, the yuan, or a combination of other currencies replaced the dollar, the US would lose that advantage.
Without a replacement in the near term, nothing will replace the dollar as the world's reserve currency in the next five years at least. But nothing lasts forever. "When they [China] want the dollar to fall, they will let it," Weisbrot said. "The dollar will fall eventually but that could be a long time away."
The fate of the dollar notwithstanding, a separate WikiLeaks cable outlines some of the broader ambiguities of the world's most important economic relationship, or "ChinAmerica", as it has been dubbed by historian Niall Ferguson.
"No one in 1979 would have predicted that China would become the United States' most important relationship in thirty years," the cable stated. "No one today can predict with certainty where our relations with Beijing will be thirty years hence."
You can follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEchris