Twice as Important

IMF showdown with China in Morocco, October 12, 2023

This year’s annual IMF/World Bank meetings in Morocco are the most explicitly confrontational yet by US/NATO diplomacy toward China and its fellow BRICS+ allies. It is not really rivalry, because US neoliberal financial policy is so different from the aims that the BRICS+ countries have been developing at their own recent international meetings. At issue is not only what countries will be the major beneficiaries of future IMF and World Bank loan operations, but whether the world will back US unipolar dominance? Or will it start to move explicitly toward a multipolar philosophy of mutual support to increase living standards and prosperity? This is counter to the anti-labor austerity imposed by US demands, using these two organizations as arms of its New Cold War policy in an attempt to maintain a trade and investment system now widely seen to be dysfunctional and financially predatory. 

At issue is an increase in the US drive to raise quotas of IMF and World Bank member countries. Quotas reflect voting power, with 85% of the votes required to enact a policy. A 15% veto is able to block any policy change. Since the 1944-45 inception of these two organizations, the United States has insisted in having veto power in any organization it joins, so that no foreign countries will ever be in a position to dictate its policy. This enabled it to block any policy that it deems benefiting other nations more than itself. Its 17.4% quota (and 16.5% of the vote) gives it veto power in the IMF.

It was inevitable that the original distribution of quotas has not kept pace with the shifts in international financial power since 1945. Rising economies have asked for a larger quota and hence voice in settling IMF and World Bank policy. But each round of quota increases has seen US strategists insist that any increase in overall quotas must not reduce its own quota to less than the 15% – enabling it to maintain its unique veto power.

No other country remotely approaches U.S. power.

US strategists were glad to let Japan obtain the second largest quota, now 6.47 percent. That reflects not only its great industrial takeoff in the 1970s and ‘80s, but US confidence that Japan will be like a “second US vote.” (That is why it tried to add Japan to the UN Security Council. The Soviet delegate vetoed this, citing Japan’s role as a US political satellite.)

China is in third place, with 6.40%, closely followed by the weakening economies of Germany and Britain, thoroughly reliant on US gentleness as it imposes tightening US-centered dependency on their economies. 

What makes this issue so pressing this year is the emergence of BRICS+ countries and the collective alternative that they are in the process of juxtaposing. This is occurring as they move to de-dollarize their economies so as to protect themselves from the threat that US diplomats will impose sanctions or confiscate their official monetary reserves (as they have done with those of Iran, Venezuela and Russia). This is often in punishment for their seeking national self-sufficiency instead of reliance on US suppliers and creditors. 

For countries seeking a multipolar world order instead of US-centered unipolar economy, the widely used term “dedollarization” has evolved rapidly to mean much more than simply using other currencies to settle their trade and investment transactions.

A fundamentally different philosophy of international finance, creditor/debtor relationships and national self-sufficiency is evolving before our eyes. It is motivated by protecting themselves from trade sanctions and other US-sponsored economic warfare. For many decades, countries sought to avoid running into debt to the IMF. They feared being subjected to its anti-labor austerity policies, imposed in the junk-economics belief that any volume of foreign debt service could be squeezed out by reducing labor’s wages by a sufficient degree.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and her US neoliberal gang at Marrakesh have thrown down the gauntlet when it comes to giving China a stronger voice – that is, quota – in the IMF.

The Financial Times published the most explicit statement of their position on October 12 in an article by former US Treasury official Edwin Truman.

“Like it or not,” he points out, “any deal must satisfy the US Treasury.”

Its primary concern is that while ideally each member’s quota would increase by at least one-third, “the combined size of these selected increases must not threaten the US voting share, or Washington will block the compromise.”

Furthermore, Mr. Truman explains, the planned increase should not apply to “the emerging market and developing countries.” They are debtors and hence would support policies that help debtor countries recover – instead of falling into deepening dependency on international bondholders and new US dollar loans from US/NATO creditors and the IMF.

The problem is that “Under the current formula, the quotas of [the strongest] 25 IMF members should be at least 50 per cent larger than their current ones, led by China.” But in addition to threatening to “reduce the US voting share to close to 15 per cent,” it would give China increasing influence. “The US has made clear that it will not support an increase in any member’s quota share unless that country respects the rules and norms of the IMF, which in the US view China does not. To remove this obstacle, China should agree not to accept the selective increase in its quota to which it would otherwise be entitled, and the US should support the compromise.” 

If it does not submit quietly, he threatens, the IMF meeting will end in “another stalemate.” By that word he means a refusal by China and other countries to acquiesce in U.S. Cold War strategists hijacking even more Asian and Global South resources to support their international diplomacy.

In one sense, I wonder what all this kerfuffle really is about. Who really cares what the IMF’s articles of agreement stipulate and what its staff recommends? We are no longer in a rule of law, but in a “rules-based order,” with US officials setting the rules on an ad hoc basis. This already had made a travesty of IMF rules and procedures. 

The IMF’s recent loans to Ukraine have raised its borrowing to seven times its quota. The IMF no longer feels obligated to follow its articles of agreement, and quite openly acts as an agent of the US State Department and military to finance the US/NATO war with Russia and China (and really, of course, against Germany and Western Europe). 

In addition to IMF loans to Ukraine violating its stated borrowing limits to a member-country, it is lending to a country at war, also forbidden. And third, it violates the “No more Argentinas” rule that it is not supposed to make a loan to a country without some calculation that the country will be able to repay the loan.

Does anyone believe that Ukraine can repay – except perhaps by selling its agricultural land to Monsanto, Cargill and other US agribusiness companies?

In view of the fact that US strategists at the IMF and World Bank are bound to continue to weaponize their loans to promote a US-centered neoliberalism, I have a modest proposal for China. I know that it does not want to use the present state of international tension to emphasize its willingness to break. So perhaps it should indeed give the US precisely what it wants – and even more! 

It can indeed go on record as suggesting that it be given a quota reflecting its economy equality with the United States. That certainly would seem to be warranted by being designated America’s Number One long-term adversary. But if the US refuses, then I would like to see China simply withdraw its IMF and World Bank subscription altogether. Walk away. 

Why should China help subsidize international organizations whose policies are adverse to those of China and its fellow BRICS+ allies? The World Bank is always headed by a US diplomat, usually from the military, and hopes to finance the US/NATO backed alternative to China’s Belt and Road initiative. And the IMF’s neoliberal “stabilization” policies are anti-labor and hence most amenable to US client oligarchies, not the reforms that BRICS+ countries are seeking to put in place. 

If Chinese and fellow BRICS+ dedollarization is indeed a broad system-wide effort to replace the US unipolar predatory asymmetry with a more positive-sum philosophy of mutual gain, why not take this opportunity to accept the US challenge that has just thrown down the gauntlet to China? That would avoid a “stalemate.” It would make clear the philosophical distinctions that have led the world economy to today’s crossroads.

In diplomatic terms, let’s call it an agreement to disagree.


Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash