This month, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, and a handful of other U.S. allies announced plans to join the new China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite American pressure not to. The multilateral fund is essentially China’s answer to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, organizations where the U.S. has long had more influence than China. China has the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves—around $3.8 trillion in December—and wants to use some to fund infrastructure development projects in Asia. It’s clear enormous investment there is necessary. It’s also clear the U.S. is concerned the AIIB—and other new China-backed lending institutions—will weaken its influence. Below is a bit of background from the December 2009 Foreign Policy excerpt of Brad DeLong and Stephen Cohen’s prescient book The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money:

Proverbs 22:7 instructs us: “The borrower is servant to the lender.” But the lesson requires some exegesis to fit smoothly into context. The burden of the U.S. foreign debt may be better explained by the oft-repeated Wall Street wisecrack, which we repeat: When you owe the bank $1 million, the bank has got you; when you owe the bank $1 billion, you’ve got the bank.

Neither side can walk away; we’re locked. The debt binds China especially and other governments that have the money. Selling the debt would send the dollar way down and thereby destroy the value of their dollar holdings and severely damage their economies’ massive export-based sectors. Worse yet, sell it for what? Their “reserves” are so huge that there is nothing else they can hold them in, not at that scale. From a Chinese viewpoint, it’s exasperating.

The U.S.-China economic imbalance has forced the two powers into a very intimate and not very desired embrace, something Lawrence Summers once called a financial balance of terror. This is all to the good: The two powers must learn to work as partners, and not just in economic matters — global warming and global order also need positive Sino-American cooperation, and they are much more important long-term issues. Sino-American partnership, in managing the complex mess of their imbalanced economic codependency, can constitute a good beginning for managing the utterly unhinged problems of world balance and order. We have no acceptable choice but to get good at it, and that will take some doing on both sides.

As money alters power relations, the United States is not simply becoming dependent — but it is no longer independent, either. That is a major change. And China is no longer helpless and cowed in face of the superpower hegemon; it has got a grip on it. Indeed, while the world peeks in, the two countries are realizing that they have thrown themselves into an intimate economic embrace with, to say the least, very mixed feelings.

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