The Call

China frustrates the world

China frustrates the world

By Ian Bremmer and David Gordon

Amid a sluggish global recovery, China’s return to go-go growth will generate plenty of resentment in 2011 — and not just in Washington. Though China has become the world’s second-largest economy, its leadership insists it must continue to manage the country’s development at a measured pace. For some of China’s biggest trading partners, that argument is beginning to ring hollow.

To rebalance the global economy, policymakers in both the developed and developing world have called on China to reduce its enormous trade surpluses by reducing the country’s dependence for growth on exports and increasing Chinese consumer demand, both for foreign and domestically made products. Chinese policymakers would like to do exactly that. The Western financial crisis briefly created turmoil in China, not because Chinese banks were exposed to contagion from Western banks, but because reduced demand for Chinese products in Europe, the United States, and Japan hit local manufacturers hard and forced millions of Chinese from their jobs. Beijing scrambled to create new jobs, primarily by targeting massive state stimulus spending at infrastructure projects that required lots of manual labor. For the Chinese leadership, generating much greater domestic demand would make China less vulnerable to hard times elsewhere.

But China’s plans for rebalancing will take a generation to accomplish, and a lot of its trade partners would like to see the change come much faster than that. In the near term, Beijing will offer only small adjustments to accommodate them because the leadership must negotiate demands from various interest groups within the leadership and because this transition will put many more workers on the street than the slowdown did, and the Chinese leadership knows it must manage that challenge carefully to avoid a dramatic surge in civil unrest.

Unsatisfied, outsiders will grouse that China’s rate of export growth remains twice its rate of economic growth. In 2010, relations between the United States and China became much more contentious. In 2011, China will likely face increased pressure from Europe, Japan, and probably from emerging markets like India and Brazil. Further, China’s security-driven assertiveness in East Asia will continue to provoke tensions with many of its Asian neighbors even as trade relations deepen.

In the past, China has taken the edge off international pressure by adjusting the pace of its reform efforts modestly just before major multinational gatherings — for example, by depegging the renminbi from the U.S. dollar in advance of the June 2010 Toronto G-20 summit. But there aren’t many "steam-releasing" events on the calendar in 2011. President Hu Jintao visits Washington later this month, but the North Korea crisis will occupy much of that conversation, decreasing the likelihood that China will see much value in any major moves on rebalancing.

The next G-20 meeting, this one in Cannes, won’t be held until November. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has grand ambitions for this event, but frustration with China will build over the next 10 months and so too will the risks of market-moving international reactions to China’s incremental, deliberate, consensus-driven policymaking process. At Cannes, tensions may come to a head as more countries than ever prove ready to confront Beijing on issues from industrial policy to intellectual property rights protections to currency valuation.

On Monday, we’ll examine the threat from North Korea, which hits our list of this year’s top risks at No. 5.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group. David Gordon is the firm’s head of research.