Last week US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin warned the US will impose new sanctions on China if it doesn’t conform to UN sanctions on North Korea:
“If China doesn’t follow these sanctions, we will put additional sanctions on them and prevent them from accessing the U.S. and international dollar system, and that’s quite meaningful.”
In other words, the administration wants to sanction one of the US’s biggest trading partners, and the world’s second-largest economy.
China is the world’s third-largest recipient of Americans exports, behind only Canada and Mexico. China is the world’s largest source of imports for Americans, slightly ahead of both Mexico and Canada.
In 2016, Americans exported $169 billion in goods and services to China while importing $478 billion of goods and services. Every year, both consumers and producers benefit from the importation of Chinese electronics, machinery, food, footwear, and more.
Ratcheting up economic warfare with China could serve to cut off these avenues of trade and thus will only cost consumers and small business owners who currently benefit from lower-cost machinery, clothing, and more.
For the mercantilists in the Trump administration, of course, American consumers import “too much” from China anyway, and Americans and ought to be prohibited by the US government from purchasing what they want. The North Korea situation could serve as a convenient excuse for slapping prohibitions on American consumers in the name of “fair trade” while also serving as a foreign policy tool.
The last thing the US consumer needs is a trade war with China.
At this point, however, the US isn’t talking about cutting off trade in such a blunt manner.
As Mnuchin notes, the strategy here is to “prevent [the Chinese] from accessing the U.S. and international dollar system.” In practice, this would likely mean restricting access to the so-called SWIFT system which facilitates international transactions in dollars.
This idea is highly problematic in its own way. Were the Chinese to be cut off from the dollar, this would only create an enormous incentive for the Chinese to move away from the dollar into other currencies — including its own. China’s largest trading partners would likely follow China in this exodus. Moreover, China and Russia have already foreseen the possibility of SWIFT being “weaponized.”
As Jeff Thomas notes:
China, Russia and others have seen this day coming and have created their own SWIFT system, world cable network and world banking system. All that’s needed to kick it all into gear is a major international need to bypass SWIFT. The US government has just provided that need with this threat. There would certainly be teething pains in getting the new system running on a massive scale, but the sudden worldwide need would drive the implementation.
Moreover, China is a key trading partner for Germany, Russia, Australia, Japan. Brazil, and South Korea. Will these countries simply write off China as a trading partner because thy can’t settle accounts in dollars? It’s unlikely.
While this would not necessarily destroy the dollar, a movement away from the US dollar would greatly diminish the dollar’s standing as the world’s reserve currency. It would diminish the dollar’s role as the go-to currency, and this would, in turn, drive up borrowing costs — i.e. interest rates — for the US government. This would turn the US’s currently sustainable debt problem into an unsustainable one. Massive domestic budget cuts in the US would follow. …