The announcement on Friday in Beijing that China will impose export tariffs on a range of clothing items might generate a moment of polite, if muted, applause in Washington and Brussels. After all, Beijing has done exactly what the US and the European Union has demanded it do: manipulate its textile exports to restrain the surge in shipments in some clothing categories that followed the end of a global apparel quota system on January 1.

Spare a thought for Beijing's leaders, then, when they cock their ears next week to listen to the other complaint emanating from western capitals - and particularly, from Washington. This time, the calls will be for free trade, in the form of an edict that China immediately dump its currency peg to the US dollar and allow its currency, the renminbi, to appreciate, thus making its exports more expensive.

The principle may be vastly different from the clothing duties, but the purpose is the same: to take the steam out of Chinese exports and protect local industry.

There is little doubt that China's exports, and the country's trade surplus, are swelling. China's global trade surplus last year of $32bn (€25.3bn) is currently on track to triple to around $100bn in 2005. This is not a trend that China's leaders, who have to create somewhere between 10m and 20m new jobs a year, would happily curb.

Since Beijing crunched bank lending in April 2004, to rein in over-investment, soaring exports have kept the economy going with a healthy growth rate, reaching an annual 9.5 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

On textiles, China appears to be willing to take some short-term pain in the knowledge that it will win in the end. Hence yesterday's gesture, which is aimed at puncturing growing protectionist pressures and keeping the reimposition of quotas by the US and EU to a minimum. China only needs to get through another two to three years, when the US and the EU will lose the right to reimpose textile quotas that they can currently slap on under Beijing's accession agreement to the World Trade Organisation.

Over time, China's sheer competitiveness means it will gain market share anyway in the US and the EU. And in the meantime, the government is happy for the mainly privatised textile industry to be kept, if necessary, at heel.

But the renminbi is another animal altogether, involving prickly issues of sovereignty and the management of finely balanced domestic reforms to fix China's creaky financial system.

Even worse, any change in China's exchange rate is unlikely to have much impact on its trade surplus with the US, the very issue on which Congress is demanding action - and believes an appreciating Chinese currency will solve.

In other words, the US is demanding that China make a political concession - and a craven one - that will not solve the political problem at hand.

As a symbolic battleground over trade, then, the move by US Congress to target the renminbi seems particularly senseless. It is true there are many scholars and some officials in Beijing who agree with calls to abandon the dollar peg. But their voices are falling silent these days. Their argument that China should end the dollar peg in its own interests, to give the government control of monetary policy, is being muted for fear of being aligned publicly with US interests.

China has shown in recent years a willingness to work with Washington and cut deals if necessary to keep ties stable. But to bow so blatantly to the US on a sovereign issue such as the currency would be distasteful, not to say dangerous, for the country's leaders.

What outsiders see as sensible pragmatism on the part of Beijing's leaders, many ordinary Chinese see as weakness. In a country with a history of humiliation at the hands of foreigners, it is not a charge that any leaders want levelled at them.

China has great leverage over the US, many argue, because of its large and growing hoard of dollars. But this is not the kind of influence that Beijing would like to use - at least for the moment. For all the conspiracy theories that abound, China has no interest in pulling the rug from under the US economy, or in devaluing its own war chest of dollars at the same time.

Then there is the issue of the size of any appreciation. China's incremental policy process and the huge step of removing the peg, a bedrock of financial stability for a decade, mean any first move is likely to be small, allowing for an appreciation of about 3 to 5 per cent, or even less.

A China-based foreign analyst was surprised when he explained this to an influential American visitor recently. The man, he said, reacted as if his manhood had been disparaged, replying that such a small move would be "an insult" to the US.

So why should China make a small change ahead of its predetermined schedule, when it would simply raise expectations for more?

Predicting when China will move is impossible. A senior Beijing official close to the currency process said his best guess was that the top leaders might wake up one day, see some nice weather and then make up their minds. "We have to believe in the existence of free will," he joked.

Perhaps, but that does not seem to be a commodity that Washington wants to see an oversupply of in China - at least as far as the economies of both countries are concerned.

The writer is the FT's Beijing bureau chief

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