In a symbolic blow to U.S. global financial hegemony, Russia and China took a small step toward undercutting the domination of the U.S. dollar as the international reserve currency on Tuesday when Russia’s second biggest financial institution, VTB, signed a deal with the Bank of China to bypass the dollar and pay each other in domestic currencies.
The so-called Agreement on Cooperation — signed in the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is on a visit to Shanghai — could be followed by a long-awaited announcement this week of a massive natural gas deal 10 years in the making.
“Our countries have done a huge job to reach a new historic landmark,” Putin said on Tuesday, making note of the $100 billion in annual trade that has been achieved between the two countries.
Demand for the dollar, which has long served as a safe and reliable reserve currency in international transactions, has allowed the U.S. to borrow almost unlimited cash and spend well beyond its means, which some economists say has afforded the United States an outsize influence on world affairs.
But the BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, a bloc of the world’s five major emerging economies — have long sought to diminish their dependence on the dollar as a means of reshaping the world financial and geopolitical order. In the absence of a viable alternative, however, replacing it has proved difficult.
For its part, “China sees the dominance of the dollar in international trade transactions as a remnant of American global dominance, which they hope to overthrow in the years ahead,” said Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. “This is a small step in that direction, to reduce the primacy of the dollar in international trade.”
Some have been tempted to view Tuesday’s deal in the context of Putin’s showdown with the West over the crisis in Ukraine. After the U.S. and Europe imposed sanctions on Moscow for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Putin may have finally made good on promised retaliation against what he views as Western hegemony in Russia’s near abroad.
“Breaking the dominance of the U.S. dollar in international trade between the BRICS is something that the group has been talking about for some time,” said Chris Weafer, a founding partner of Macro-Advisory, a consultancy in Moscow. “The Ukraine crisis and the threats voiced by the U.S. administration may well provide the catalyst for that to start happening.”
To be sure, the Russia-China bank deal is mostly a symbolic step. Liza Ermolenko, an emerging markets economist at Capital Economics in London, said that the deal was still “a very small one, in the grand scale of things,” and that it wouldn’t change Russia’s reliance on the dollar “overnight.” Most of Russia’s export contracts in the oil and gas markets are still priced in dollars, she noted, and on a wider scale, replacing the dollar with the ruble is much too risky to even consider.