China is ready to step in

At a time when the U.S. and other traditional economic powers are weakening, China is flexing its muscles, signaling it will seek a much more assertive role in shaping the future of the world financial order.

The apparent shift in Beijing's approach is likely to be displayed at the Group of 20 nations' summit today in London, as China presses for changes in a global finance system long dominated by the U.S. and Western Europe.

Leading up to the gathering of the heads of 20 major developed and emerging economies, Chinese leaders have publicly criticized America's economic system, raised concerns about the safety of China's massive holdings of U.S. debt and, most recently, proposed the creation of a new international currency to replace the dollar.

At the same time, China is snapping up foreign oil fields and mines, ensuring that its raw materials cupboard will be well-stocked when the economy rebounds. This year China has signed deals with Iran, Russia and Venezuela for oil and gas deals worth tens of billions of dollars, and has made moves for stakes or outright purchases of at least seven mining companies.

Chinese companies are also looking to buy high-profile Western brands on the cheap, while recruiting foreign talent to upgrade China's technology. China's Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. has reportedly talked with Ford Motor Co. about purchasing its distressed Volvo unit. And analysts on both sides of the Pacific have floated the prospect of a Chinese automaker acquiring General Motors Corp.'s venerable Buick line, if not the entire company, something once considered unthinkable.

China sees the global downturn as a once-in-a-century opportunity -- and it has the wherewithal to seize the moment. Although Chinese leaders too are struggling with shrinking trade and rising joblessness, their economy is still growing faster than those of other major nations. Chinese banks are more stable. And the Beijing government is sitting on the largest stockpile of foreign reserves in the world, some $2 trillion.

"They have fairly clear objectives of where they see their place in the new world order," said Oded Shenkar, a management professor at Ohio State University and author of "The Chinese Century." "They see it's time to position themselves more assertively."

China's clout has been increasing in recent years as it has surged to become the third-biggest economy, after the U.S. and Japan. But even as recently as the G-20 meeting in Washington last November, Chinese leaders kept a relatively low profile and stated that the best way for them to help the world would be to focus on China's domestic affairs.

But as global financial problems deepened and China's export industries were pummeled by slumping demand from the U.S. and Europe, Chinese officials saw how vulnerable their economy was.

Some Chinese scholars say Beijing's newly assertive stance reflects the sentiments of many of its citizens, who, they argue, lost their romantic illusions about the U.S. economic model and its superiority in the wake of the made-in-America global recession.

"The capitalist system dominated by the West is stuck in serious and deep crisis -- and is bringing disaster to the entire world," said Huang Jisu, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and co-author of a bestselling book, "Unhappy China," which lashes out at U.S. hegemony and calls for China to take a stronger hand in world affairs.

Other scholars worry about such nationalist fervor, evident especially in Internet forums, and its influence on government policymaking. Still, there appears to be broad recognition and public support for China's rising voice.

"To everyone's surprise, China made a break from its old way of only emphasizing general principles and instead raised lots of detailed measures this time," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing-based Renmin University of China. Although it may be too early to describe it as a shift in policy, he said, "I will call it a remarkable increase in China's sense of the international role it can play."

Shi and other analysts reckon China's bid to wield more clout in global economic affairs will be met with resistance from the U.S. and other leading developed nations.

Even so, leaders in Europe and the U.S. are looking to cash-rich China to bolster the International Monetary Fund's resources, and appear to be moving toward giving China and other emerging economies an expanded role.

Beijing has indicated a willingness to inject money into the IMF, but it has long been unhappy with the Washington-based organization, in particular the way nations' voting rights are assigned. China wants a greater say in the fund before adding to its coffers.

In recent weeks Chinese leaders also have taken aim at the dollar. Premier Wen Jiabao expressed concerns last month about the stability of some $1 trillion of U.S. government bonds in Chinese hands. President Obama swiftly responded by declaring that foreign investors can have "absolute confidence" in Treasury bonds.

Beijing worries about the possibility of a falling dollar or serious inflation eroding the value of its investments, as Washington borrows record sums to dig itself out of the recession. Last week the head of China's central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan, raised the idea of creating a new global reserve currency to replace the dominant dollar -- a kind of super-currency made up of a basket of national currencies and controlled by the IMF.

Experts agree it would take years, if not decades, to design and manage a truly global reserve currency that could supplant the greenback. Many Chinese have urged Beijing to stop plowing so much of the foreign reserves into risky dollar assets and instead deploy the funds to acquire the technology and natural resources needed to fuel the nation's economy.

Already, China had been on a buying binge. Last year its outbound mergers and acquisitions were worth a record $52.1 billion, according to New York-based Dealogic. In the first quarter of this year, Chinese companies have cut deals worth $17 billion.

Shenkar, the author and management professor, considers how many people looked at the Beijing Summer Olympics as a defining moment of China's rise. It turns out, he says, that's little compared with the global financial crisis.

"The real Olympics is now," he said, "and the Chinese are doing much better than the competition."

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don.lee@latimes.com

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