Tokyo: Asia`s small, open economies are caught in the crossfire of a tussle between the United States and China over whether the yuan should strengthen against the dollar to fix the lopsided global economy.
The greenback`s slide against Asian currencies is dealing a double whammy to the region`s export-dependent economies, hitting their exports and eating away at their massive foreign exchange holdings.
Some see the dollar`s decline as a necessary adjustment to reduce global trade imbalances. But it has not weakened significantly against the Chinese yuan, whose value is tightly managed by Beijing -- to much US criticism.
"The West needs to save more, Asia and the Middle East need to spend more, and currencies need to adjust," said Standard Chartered chief economist Gerard Lyons.
"The big problem is the continued recent stability of the Chinese yuan against the dollar. Yuan stability is forcing many Asian countries to fight to keep their currencies stable to maintain competitiveness," he added.
The currency issue risks stoking trade tensions when leaders of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum meet in Singapore on November 14-15 to discuss the global economy and free trade.
The dollar has plunged about 15 percent against a basket of six other major currencies from a peak earlier this year, and recently hit one-year lows against a batch of regional Asian currencies.
US officials ritually express their backing for a "strong dollar" but have done nothing to arrest its slide, which many see as necessary to reduce the big US trade deficit and support struggling American exporters.
Beijing for its part re-pegged the yuan to the US dollar in July 2008 as the global financial crisis hit its exports.
Facing a loss of competitiveness against China`s exporters, several central banks in the region -- mainly in Southeast Asia -- have bought dollars in recent weeks to curb their currencies` ascent, traders say.
Experts say China is unlikely to loosen its grip on its currency until it is confident that its economy is past its recent wobble.
"Currency moves would help to reduce global imbalances but policymakers don`t view it as a priority," said Dariusz Kowalczyk, chief investment strategist at SJS Markets in Hong Kong.
"Every country has its national interests. It`s in the interests of China to promote its exports."
China is unlikely to adjust its currency policy before mid-2010 and any rise in the value of the yuan against the dollar would be gradual, he said.
Virtually free credit in the United States and other major economies has fuelled a massive binge by investors on risky assets such as equities and commodities while leading to a sell-off of the dollar.
Nouriel Roubini, the New York University professor who earned the nickname "Dr Doom" for predicting the global financial crisis, warned last week that this "mother of all carry trades faces an inevitable bust".
"The reckless US policy that is feeding these carry trades (selling low-return currencies to buy other higher yielding assets) is forcing other countries to follow its easy monetary policy," he wrote in the Financial Times.
"Central banks in Asia and Latin America are worried about dollar weakness and are aggressively intervening to stop excessive currency appreciation."
Some analysts see India`s recent move to buy 200 tonnes of gold from the International Monetary Fund for 6.7 billion dollars as a clear sign that countries are losing confidence in the US currency.
China has also been boosting its gold stockpiles and buying commodity-related assets overseas, even as Washington seeks to reassure Beijing its massive US bond holdings are safe as the American public debt balloons.
The greenback`s slide is also complicating nations` tricky task of deciding when to take away the prop of easy money as the party gets going again on world markets.
"The dilemma for many countries is that tightening early may attract hot-money inflows as investors seek higher yields. Waiting, however, may trigger asset price inflation," said Lyons.