The most obviously worrisome part of the situation today is that the Chinese could decide that they no longer want to buy Treasury bonds. The U.S. government’s recent spending for bank bailouts and stimulus may be necessary to get the economy moving again, but it also raises the specter of eventual inflation, which would damage the value of Treasuries. If the Chinese are unnerved by this, they could instead use their cash to buy the bonds of other countries, which would cause interest rates here to jump, prolonging the recession. Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, seemed to raise this possibility in March, in remarks to reporters at the end of the annual session of China’s Parliament. “We have lent a huge amount of money to the U.S.,” Wen said. “Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am definitely a little worried.” In all likelihood, this was mostly posturing. Were China to cut back sharply on its purchase of Treasury bonds, it would send the value of the bonds plummeting, hurting the Chinese, who already own hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth. Yet Wen’s comments, which made headlines around the world, did highlight an underlying truth. The relationship between the United States and China can’t continue on its current path.
...So putting the global economy onto a more sustainable path will require dealing with the imbalances between China and the United States. In the broadest terms, this will mean that Americans must consume less and that Chinese must consume more. Domestically, Obama’s economic agenda is organized around the first half of this equation. He has said that economic growth must rely less on consumer spending than it has, and he is pushing for a series of investments — in education, science, medicine and alternative energy — the fruits of which are meant to replace consumption. But those fruits won’t mature as quickly as American households are paring back. For the sake of the global economy, persuading China to consume more will be crucial, too. It will also make a big difference to China’s 1.3 billion citizens. Most are still poor enough that consumption doesn’t mean yet another Barbie or iPod; it means basic comforts, like medical care and transportation.
Moving to an economy based more on consumption and less on exports happens to be the policy of the Chinese government, and has been since 2003. Its latest five-year economic plan, announced in 2006, was organized around the idea.