The Russian central bank opened its first overseas office in Beijing on March 14, marking a step forward in forging a Beijing-Moscow alliance to bypass the US dollar in the global monetary system, and to phase-in a gold-backed standard of trade.
According to the South China Morning Post the new office was part of agreements made between the two neighbours "to seek stronger economic ties" since the West brought in sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis and the oil-price slump hit the Russian economy.
According to Dmitry Skobelkin, the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, the opening of a Beijing representative office by the Central Bank of Russia was a “very timely” move to aid specific cooperation, including bond issuance, anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism measures between China and Russia.
The new central bank office was opened at a time when Russia is preparing to issue its first federal loan bonds denominated in Chinese yuan. Officials from China’s central bank and financial regulatory commissions attended the ceremony at the Russian embassy in Beijing, which was set up in October 1959 in the heyday of Sino-Soviet relations. Financial regulators from the two countries agreed last May to issue home currency-denominated bonds in each other’s markets, a move that was widely viewed as intended to eventually test the global reserve status of the US dollar.
Speaking on future ties with Russia, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in mid-March that Sino-Russian trade ties were affected by falling oil prices, but he added that he saw great potential in cooperation. Vladimir Shapovalov, a senior official at the Russian central bank, said the two central banks were drafting a memorandum of understanding to solve technical issues around China’s gold imports from Russia, and that details would be released soon.
If Russia - the world's fourth largest gold producer after China, Japan and the US - is indeed set to become a major supplier of gold to China, the probability of a scenario hinted by many over the years, namely that Beijing is preparing to eventually unroll a gold-backed currency, increases by orders of magnitude.
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Meanwhile, as the Russian central bank was getting closer to China, China was responding in kind with the establishment of a clearing bank in Moscow for handling transactions in Chinese yuan. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) officially started operating as a Chinese renminbi clearing bank in Russia on Wednesday this past Wednesday.
"The financial regulatory authorities of China and Russia have signed a series of major agreements, which marks a new level of financial cooperation," Dmitry Skobelkin, the abovementioned deputy head of the Russian Central Bank, said.
"The launching of renminbi clearing services in Russia will further expand local settlement business and promote financial cooperation between the two countries," he added according to.
Irina Rogova, a Russian financial analyst told the Russian magazine Expert that the clearing center could become a large financial hub for countries in the Eurasian Economic Union.
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Bypassing the US dollar appears to be paying off: according to the Chinese State Administration of Taxation, trade turnover between China and Russia increased by 34% in January, in annual terms. Bilateral trade in January 2017 amounted to $6.55 billion. China’s exports to Russia grew 29.5% reaching $3.41 billion, while imports from Russia increased by 39.3%, to $3.14 billion. Just as many suspected, with Russian sanctions forcing Moscow to find other trading partners, chief among which China, this is precisely what has happened.
The creation of the clearing center enables the two countries to further increase bilateral trade and investment while decreasing their dependence on the US dollar. It will create a pool of yuan liquidity in Russia that enables transactions for trade and financial operations to run smoothly.
In expanding the use of national currencies for transactions, it could also potentially reduce the volatility of yuan and ruble exchange rates. The clearing center is one of a range of measures the People's Bank of China and the Russian Central Bank have been looking at to deepen their co-operation, Sputnik reported.
One of the most significant measures under consideration is the previously reported push for joint organization of trade in gold. In recent years, China and Russia have been the world's most active buyers of the precious metal. On a visit to China last year, the deputy head of the Russian Central Bank Sergey Shvetsov said that the two countries want to facilitate more transactions in gold between the two countries.
"We discussed the question of trade in gold. BRICS countries are large economies with large reserves of gold and an impressive volume of production and consumption of this precious metal. In China, the gold trade is conducted in Shanghai, in Russia it is in Moscow. Our idea is to create a link between the two cities in order to increase trade between the two markets," First Deputy Governor of the Russian Central Bank Sergey Shvetsov told Russia's TASS news agency.
In other words, China and Russia are shifting away from dollar-based trade, to commerce which will eventually be backstopped by gold, or what is gradually emerging as an Eastern gold standard, one shared between Russia and China, and which may day backstop their respective currencies.
Meanwhile, the price of gold continues to reflect none of these potentially tectonic strategic shifts, just as China - which has been the biggest accumulator of gold in recent years - likes it.