By Paul Taylor
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - China is closer to joining the major league of reserve currencies with a deal possible later this year to include the yuan in the International Monetary Fund's unit of account, international finance officials say.
However the United States, where China's growing economic and political muscle is a source of strategic concern in Congress, is reluctant to add the yuan so soon to the basket of currencies that make up the IMF's Special Drawing Rights.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said after a visit to Beijing this week the yuan was not yet ready to join the virtual currency that defines the value of the IMF's reserves, used for lending to countries in financial difficulty.
"While further liberalization and reform are needed for the (yuan) to meet this standard, we encourage the process of completing these necessary reforms," Lew said in a speech in San Francisco on Tuesday.
The yuan, also known as the renminbi or RMB, is already the world's fifth most-used trade currency. Beijing has made strides this year in introducing the infrastructure needed to float it freely on global capital markets.
European members of the Group of Seven major industrialized economies - Germany, Britain, France and Italy - favor adding the yuan this year to the basket that comprises the dollar, the euro, the yen and the pound sterling. Japan, like the United States, is more cautious, the officials said.
The IMF's board will hold an initial discussion in May on China's request and a full five-yearly review of the SDR's composition will be conducted later in the year ahead of a decision expected in November, IMF officials said.
"The German side supports China's goal to add the RMB to the SDR currency basket based on existing criteria," Joachim Nagel, a member of the executive board of the German central bank, said last weekend at a high-level forum in Boao, on the southern Chinese island of Hainan.
The upcoming review could be a good opportunity to introduce the yuan into the basket, he said, adding: "We appreciate China's recent development and progress towards liberalization."
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang asked IMF chief Christine Lagarde last month to include the yuan in its SDR basket, pledged to speed up its "basic convertibility" and said China hoped to play an active role in international efforts to maintain financial stability, state news agency Xinhua said.
A euro zone central bank source said one route could see a phased entry into the SDR, linked to fulfilling the official criterion that the yuan must be "freely usable", which Western officials interpret as full convertibility.
It would be the first emerging market currency to join the SDR, marking another stage in China's rise as a global economic player and requiring the United States to accept a dilution of its unrivalled power in international finance.
While the Europeans are vying for commercial advantage in the world's second biggest economy, Washington sees Beijing also as an authoritarian strategic challenger that may not feel bound by rules written by the West.
The U.S. Congress has held up ratification of a 2010 reform of voting rights in the IMF intended to give China and other emerging economies more say.
Britain, keen to secure pole position for London as an offshore center for international trading in yuan, has taken the lead in pressing publicly for China's admission to the SDR.
David Ramsden, chief economic adviser at the UK Treasury, said much had changed since the makeup of the virtual currency was last reviewed in 2010, and including the yuan was now a "very live issue".
Germany has ambitions to lure yuan trading to Frankfurt, home of the European Central Bank, and was irked when Britain last month jumped ahead of its EU partners to become a founder member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Washington suffered a diplomatic reverse after trying to dissuade its allies from joining the Chinese initiative, seen as a potential rival to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, dominated by the United States and Japan.
Keen to avoid a second rift with Europe - even though the United States can block IMF decisions - Lew focused on the terms for admitting the yuan to the SDR rather than the timing.
"China will need to successfully complete difficult fundamental reforms, such as capital account liberalization, a more market-determined exchange rate, interest rate liberalization, as well as strengthening of financial regulation and supervision," he said.
While Washington believed Beijing has stopped intervening to weaken its currency, Lew said the true test would come when market pressure increased for the yuan to strengthen.
David Marsh, managing director of the central banking think-tank OMFIF, sees a "grand bargain" between China, the United States and the IMF taking shape under which Beijing would enter the heart of global finance in exchange for turning the yuan into a strong currency on world financial markets.
The Chinese central bank was using its $3.8 trillion in reserves to keep the yuan steady against the dollar. The Chinese currency has appreciated by 11 percent in trade-weighted terms in the past year.
"All of this is a potential challenge for the dollar and its pivotal position in world money," Marsh said in a briefing.
While there is no fixed set of indicators to measure the eligibility of a currency for the SDR basket, in 2011 IMF staff set out a number of indicators that could show whether a currency is "freely usable":
- currency composition of official reserve holdings;
- currency denomination of international banking liabilities; - currency denomination of international debt securities;
- volume of transactions in foreign exchange spot markets.
More than 60 central banks hold the yuan in their reserves, according to China-focused bankers in London. Offshore trading in the yuan soared some 350 percent on Thomson Reuters trading platforms last year and rival platform EBS said the yuan was one of its top five traded currencies.
A former high IMF official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 2015 was too soon for the yuan to qualify, but the Chinese central bank could use the review to persuade Communist Party leaders to move further towards convertibility.
Zhu Min, the IMF's Chinese deputy managing director, noted the yuan was increasingly used in trade and was also growing in capital markets.
"Clearly the RMB is already qualified, in a sense, on trade activity," he told reporters at the Boao Forum. "But on the freely usable side ... there are still some obstructions."
(This story corrects paragraph 18, changing to Asian Development Bank)
(Additional reporting by Adam Jourdan in Boao, China, Rory Carroll in San Francisco, Randall Palmer in Ottawa and Patrick Graham in London; Writing by Paul Taylor. Editing by Mike Peacock.)