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US budget war rages on, raising concerns in Asia

Updated: 2013-10-20 07:32
( Agencies)

While the US Congress cut a last-minute deal late Wednesday to avert a debt default, the larger budget war is far from over - and China, as the United States' primary debt holder, is closely monitoring the likely indefinite fight.

Deal or no deal, the US Congress' dance with default impressed policymakers and investors in China and Japan with just how vulnerable their own economic revival plans are to the next political tantrum on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps no two economies outside the US have more at stake in Washington's recurring drama than Japan and China.

Not only are they the second- and third-largest economies but also they lend Washington more money than any other single nation. China held $1.28 trillion in US Treasury securities at the end of July, and Japan owned $1.14 trillion. A default would likely have devastated the value of their holdings.

Analysts say China may step up a push for global acceptance of its currency, the yuan, or RMB, as an alternative to the US dollar in international trade.

"They might actually consider accelerating the process," said Vincent Chan, head of equity research at Credit Suisse in Hong Kong. "You strengthen the case of making the RMB a genuine international currency, because the Americans are unreliable."

There are no bond markets large enough to give China and Japan an alternative to US Treasuries for the dollars they accumulate selling exports. So the prospect of another US default drama next year is likely to lend new urgency to China's preferred solution: conducting less trade in dollars and more in yuan.

About 18 percent of China's total trade is settled in yuan. And it has registered a sharp increase this year after stagnating for most of last year. Much of the increase has come in China's trade with economies outside the US or the European Union, its biggest demand centers, although it accelerated plans to internationalize the currency with agreements this month with Britain and the European Central Bank.

Achieving more trade in yuan, however, means giving China's trading partners a place to invest their yuan as easily as they invest their dollars in US Treasuries now.

The yuan hit a record high on Friday for a fifth consecutive day against the dollar, partly as investors worried about the economic impact of the US shutdown.

Congress gets another chance to hold US creditworthiness hostage early next year ahead of a new Feb 7 deadline to approve a debt ceiling increase. That is because lawmakers failed to address the root cause of the conflict - namely, the sharp contrast in how each side views the role of government.

"The parties remain sharply divided over tax and budget policy," Brookings Institution's senior fellow Darrell West told Xinhua.

"It will take another election to resolve those issues."

Recent days have seen Republicans push the country to the edge of economic calamity, as the party blocked the lifting of the US debt ceiling unless Democrats repealed parts of President Barack Obama's controversial healthcare overhaul.

The White House also dug in its heels, and critics blasted the president for not negotiating with Republicans on parts of Obamacare that the GOP argued would harm the economy.

Indeed, the fight over Obamacare is a battle in a larger war. While supporters tout the landmark reforms as providing health insurance to millions of previously uninsured Americans, opponents argue the law is inefficient, unfair and unaffordable at a time when the country is mired in $17 trillion of debt - roughly equivalent to US gross domestic product - with no major spending cuts on the horizon.

While Republicans have voiced concern over Washington's massive spending, neither side wants to tackle entitlements, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security - three of the main debt drivers - as doing so would be a bad political move and land politicians in hot water with their constituents.

Meanwhile, it remains unknown whether the US will see a repeat of the debt ceiling fight on Feb 7, which marks the date to which the debt ceiling was extended under Wednesday's deal.

But Republicans, who were blamed worldwide as acting irresponsibly for taking the country to the edge of economic disaster, were burned in their bid to gain concessions on Obamacare. The move badly damaged the Republican brand and may cause the GOP to avoid the same tactic in the next round, analysts said.

Strategies aside, the war in Congress over spending is expected to rage on in one form or another. Both sides are expected to stick to their guns, and analysts said there are no signs of a resolution anytime soon.

As for another partial government shutdown, which saw non-essential employees furloughed for more than two weeks, GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed Thursday not to allow the government to shutter in the ongoing GOP fight against Obamacare.

Some analysts echoed those sentiments.

"I do not think there will be another government shutdown because the last one was a complete fiasco for Republicans," West said. "They gained nothing in policy terms and suffered serious political damage. It would be crazy for the GOP to repeat the same strategy."

Last week Congress saw its approval rating dip to an all-time low, with a mere 5 percent of respondents saying they back the decisions of government leaders and the majority blaming the GOP for the partial shutdown, according to an AP-GfK poll.

Dan Mahaffee, an analyst with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, told Xinhua that while numbers show Americans are increasingly becoming moderate, identifying themselves as independents and wanting pragmatic solutions, the politics of Congressional elections emphasizes the importance of party orthodoxy.