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China lobbies ASEAN on yuan use, cracking dollar dominance

Beijing proposes Asian currencies, including yen, be added to emergency pool

Including yen and yuan in the Chiang Mai Initiative currency swap framework would reduce Asia's reliance on the dollar in the event of another crisis.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- ASEAN and its East Asian partners are considering adding the yen and the yuan to their $240 billion currency swap safety net, a move that would reduce the framework's overreliance on the dollar while increasing China's economic clout.

The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan and South Korea will discuss the proposed change to the Chiang Mai Initiative at a May 2 meeting of finance ministers and central bankers in Fiji.

China, which is chairing the meeting together with Thailand, has added language to the draft joint statement mentioning use of local-currency contributions to the pool as "one option" to enhance the arrangement.

Allowing participants to access Asian currencies in an emergency could encourage their use in other contexts, including foreign exchange reserves, the thinking goes. The idea also anticipates a long-term rise in demand for these currencies in regional investment and trade.

China in particular sees it as another step on the path to internationalizing the yuan and expanding its economic influence in the region. But the proposal is likely to be complicated by U.S. alarm at the prospect of Beijing expanding its currency's role at the dollar's expense.

The greenback remains the most popular currency for international payments by a sizable margin, with a 45.6% share by value, while the yuan -- despite Chinese efforts -- accounts for just 1.2%, according to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, the global interbank messaging provider known as SWIFT. The yen's share sits at 4.3%.

Japan, meanwhile, could reap commercial benefits. Currently, about 45% of Japanese exports to other Asian countries are paid for in yen. Broader use of the currency could help Japanese companies take on less foreign exchange risk when doing business in the region.

Established in 2000, the Chiang Mai Initiative aims to prevent a repeat of the 1997 Asian currency crisis. Under this framework, countries in financial trouble can access a pool of dollars that can be sold to prop up a falling currency, though it has yet to be used.

The push to include other currencies aims to add another layer to the safety net in case crisis strikes. ASEAN countries have built up their foreign-currency reserves since the 1997 crisis, but another shock on the level of 2008 could reverberate globally.

The yen and the yuan are already included in bilateral swap agreements. Adding them to the Chiang Mai Initiative would provide further flexibility.

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