China flexed its muscles using U.S. Treasuries

REUTERS/Jason Lee

Reuters’ Emily Flitter reports that confidential diplomatic cables from the U.S. embassies in Beijing and Hong Kong lay bare China’s growing influence as America’s largest creditor.

As the U.S. Federal Reserve grappled with the aftershocks of financial crisis, the Chinese, like many others, suffered huge losses from their investments in American financial firms — from Lehman Brothers to the Primary Reserve Fund, the money market fund that broke the buck.

The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks, show that escalating Chinese pressure prompted a procession of soothing visits from the U.S.Treasury Department. In one striking instance, a top Chinese money manager directly asked U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for a favor.

In June, 2009, the head of China’s powerful sovereign wealth fund met with Geithner and requested that he lean on regulators at the U.S. Federal Reserve to speed up the approval of its $1.2 billion investment in Morgan Stanley, according to the cables, which were provided to Reuters by a third party.

Although the cables do not mention if Geithner took any action, China’s deal to buy Morgan Stanley shares was announced the very next day.

The two Treasury officials to whom the cables were addressed, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Asia Robert Dohner and Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Monetary and Financial Policy Mark Sobel, declined through a spokesperson to comment for this story. The State Department also declined to comment.

China is America’s biggest foreign lender, playing a crucial role in the U.S.Treasury auctions that allow Washington to borrow what it needs to keep its government running. At the same time, the United States is China’s top export destination: America’s trade deficit with the nation reached a record $273.1 billion in 2010. Most economists describe the two economies as co-dependent.

The concern in certain influential Washington and Wall Street circles is that Beijing would leverage its position as the main enabler of U.S. overspending. And the cables provide a glimpse into how much politics inform relations between the world’s two largest economies.

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