The People’s Bank of China’s network of local currency swap arrangements provide Asian countries with a much-needed safety net, while also strengthening China’s diplomatic position
Forced by the 1997 Southeast Asian crisis to recognize the external vulnerabilities that openness to volatile capital flows result in and upset over the post-crisis policy responses imposed by the IMF, countries in the sub-region saw the need for a regional financial safety net that can pre-empt or mitigate future crises. At the outset, the aim of the initiative, then led by Japan, was to create a facility or design a mechanism that was independent of the United States and the IMF, since the former was less concerned with vulnerabilities in Asia than it was in Latin America and that the latter’s recommendations proved damaging for countries in the region. But US opposition and inherited geopolitical tensions in the region blocked Japan’s initial proposal to establish an Asian Monetary Fund, a kind of regional IMF. As an alternative, the ASEAN+3 grouping (ASEAN members plus China, Japan and South Korea) opted for more flexible arrangements, at the core of which was a network of multilateral and bilateral central bank swap agreements. While central bank swap agreements have played a role in crisis management, the effort to make them the central instruments of a cooperatively established regional safety net, the Chiang Mai Initiative, failed. During the crises of 2008 and 2020 countries covered by the Initiative chose not to rely on the facility, preferring to turn to multilateral institutions such as the ADB, World Bank and IMF or enter into bilateral agreements within and outside the region for assistance. The fundamental problem was that because of an effort to appease the US and the IMF and the use of the IMF as a foil against the dominance of a regional power like Japan, the regional arrangement was not a real alternative to traditional sources of balance of payments support. In particular, access to significant financial assistance under the arrangement required a country to be supported first by an IMF program and be subject to the IMF’s conditions and surveillance. The failure of the multilateral effort meant that a specifically Asian safety net independent of the US and the IMF had to be one constructed by a regional power involving support for a network of bilateral agreements. Japan was the first regional power to seek to build such a network through it post-1997 Miyazawa Initiative. But its own complex relationship with the US meant that its intervention could not be sustained, more so because of the crisis that engulfed Japan in 1990. But the prospect of regional independence in crisis resolution has revived with the rise of China as a regional and global power. This time both economics and China’s independence from the US seem to improve prospects of successful regional cooperation to address financial vulnerability. A history of tensions between China and its neighbors and the fear of Chinese dominance may yet lead to one more failure. But, as of now, the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s support for a large number of bilateral swap arrangements and its participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership seem to suggest that Asian countries may finally come into their own.