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Image: G20 summit
Stefan Rousseau  /  EPA
British Prime Minister David Cameron looks on as President Barack Obama shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao after world leaders posed for a family photo before the start of the G-20 Summit in Seoul, South Korea.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/12/2010 9:05:41 PM ET 2010-11-13T02:05:41

Leaders of 20 major economies on Friday refused to endorse a U.S. push to get China to let its currency rise, keeping alive a dispute that has raised the specter of a global trade war amid criticism that cheap Chinese exports are costing American jobs.

A joint statement issued by the Group of 20 leaders including President Barack Obama and China's President Hu Jintao tried to recreate the unity that was evident when the group of rich and developing nations held its first leaders' summit two years ago during the global financial meltdown.

But deep divisions, especially over the U.S.-China currency dispute, left officials negotiating all night to draft the watered-down statement for the leaders to endorse.

After an acrimonious start, the developed and emerging nations agreed at a summit in Seoul to set vague "indicative guidelines" for measuring imbalances between their multi-speed economies but, calling a timeout to let tempers cool, left the details to be discussed in the first half of next year.

Story: U.S. and S. Korea fail to resolve free-trade pact

Obama made a case that he had a stronger hand on the world stage, despite his failure to push through a tougher stance on China's currency.

"It wasn't any easier to talk about currency when I was first elected and my poll numbers were at 65 percent," Obama argued at the close of the G-20 summit, after bluntly accusing Beijing of undervaluing its currency.

He contended he has now developed genuine friendships with leaders including Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak — and even China's Hu.

"That doesn't mean there aren't going to be differences," the president added.

European leaders broke away for their own mini-gathering in the middle of the summit to discuss a deepening credit crisis in Ireland, a stark reminder that the consequences of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression still posed a serious threat to global stability.

Vexing problems
Friday's statement is unlikely to immediately resolve the most vexing problem facing the G-20 members: How to fix a global economy that's long been nourished by huge U.S. trade deficits with China, Germany and Japan.

Exports to the United States powered those countries' economies for years. But they've also produced enormous trade gaps for the U.S. because Americans consume far more in foreign goods and services than they sell abroad.

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The biggest disappointment for the United States was the pledge by the leaders to refrain from "competitive devaluation" of currencies. Such a statement is of little consequence since countries usually only devalue their currencies — making it less worth against the dollar — in extreme situations like a severe financial crisis.

Using a slightly different wording favored by the U.S. — "competitive undervaluation" — would have shown the G-20 taking a stronger stance on China's currency policy.

The crux of the dispute is Washington's allegations that Beijing is artificially keeping its currency, the yuan, weak to gain a trade advantage. But the U.S. position has been undermined by its own recent policy of printing money to boost a sluggish economy, which is weakening the dollar.

The G-20's failure to adopt the U.S. stand has also underlined Washington's reduced influence on the international stage, especially on economic matters. Obama also failed to conclude a free trade agreement this week with South Korea.

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"Instead of hitting home runs sometimes we're gonna hit singles. But they're really important singles," Obama told a news conference where leaders tried to portray the summit as a success, pointing to pledges to fight protectionism and develop guidelines next year that will measure the imbalances between trade surplus and trade deficit countries.

Obama said China's currency is an "irritant" not just for the United States but for many of its other trading partners. The G-20 countries — ranging from industrialized countries such as U.S. and Germany to developing countries like China, Brazil and India — account for 85 percent of the world's economic activity.

"China spends enormous amounts of money intervening in the market to keep it undervalued so what we have said is it is important for China" to follow a market-based system, Obama said. "We have to understand that this is not solved overnight. But it needs to be dealt with and I am confident it can be."

The leaders' inability to reach a consensus on how to identify when global imbalances pose a threat to economic stability and merely committing themselves to a discussion of a range of indicators in the first half of 2011 fell short of the progress hoped for going into the summit.

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"They decided just to put down a lot of laudable objectives as the conclusion of the meeting and hope that they can do better, that more can be accomplished in future meetings," Tim Condon, head of research at ING Financial Markets in Singapore told Reuters.

Destructive protectionist policies
The dispute over whether China and the United States are manipulating their currencies is threatening to resurrect destructive protectionist policies like those that worsened the Great Depression in the 1930s. The biggest fear is that trade barriers will send the global economy back into recession. A law the United States passed in 1930 that raised tariffs on imports is widely thought to have deepened the Great Depression by stifling trade.

The possibility of a currency war "absolutely" remains but the nations now have the tools to reduce the intensity of the standoff, said Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega.

The G-20 leaders also pledged to move toward more market-determined exchange rate systems. Although directed against China, the statement leaves significant room for interpretation since the language is vague and does not impose any timeframe for the adoption of exchange rates determined by supply and demand.

The U.S. says a higher-valued yuan would make Chinese exports costlier abroad and make U.S. imports cheaper for the Chinese to buy. It would shrink the U.S. trade deficit with China, which is on track this year to match its 2008 record of $268 billion, and encourage Chinese companies to sell more to their own consumers rather than rely so much on the U.S. and others to buy low-priced Chinese goods.

U.S. business lobbies say that a cheaper yuan costs American jobs because production moves to China to take advantage of low labor costs and undervalued currency.

Other countries are irate over the Federal Reserve's plans to pump $600 billion into the sluggish American economy. They see that move as a reckless and selfish scheme to flood markets with dollars, driving down the value of the U.S. currency and giving American exporters an advantage.

Some critics warn that U.S. interest rates kept too low for too long could inflate new bubbles in the prices of commodities, stocks and other assets.

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Developing countries like Thailand and Indonesia fear that falling yields on U.S. government bonds will send money flooding their way in search of higher returns. Such emerging markets could be left vulnerable to a crash if investors later decide to pull out and move their money elsewhere.

'Persistently large imbalances'
The G-20 leaders said they will pursue policies to reduce the gaps between nations running large trade surpluses and those running deficits.

The "persistently large imbalances" in current accounts — a broad measure of a nation's trade and investment with the rest of the world — would be measured by what they called "indicative guidelines" to be determined later.

The leaders called for the guidelines to be developed by the G-20, along with help from the International Monetary Fund and other global organizations, and for finance ministers and central bank governors to meet in the first half of next year to discuss progress.

Analysts were not convinced.

"Leaders are putting the best face on matters by suggesting that it is the process that matters rather than results," said Stephen Lewis, chief economist for London-based Monument Securities.

"The only concrete agreement seems to be that they should go on measuring the size of the problem rather than doing something about it."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: After Japan, Obama has tax-cut dilemma

  1. Closed captioning of: After Japan, Obama has tax-cut dilemma

    >>> now to president obama 's asian tour and the summit of the world economic superpower was held overnight in seoul , south korea . savannah guthrie has the latest.

    >> reporter: good morning, to you. well, ann the president left seoul without the breakthroughs on some of the things he came for and on that big domestic issue of taxes, the president said this morning he is willing to compromise but will leave the deal making for when he returns to washington.

    >> i'm not going to negotiate here in seoul .

    >> reporter: the president from south korea today, rumors of compromise on the bush tax cuts are premature, rejects reports his administration has already decided to temporarily decided to extend all the tax cuts even to highest earners.

    >> that is the long interpretation because i haven't had a conversation with republican and democratic leaders.

    >> reporter: wrapping up the g-20, the president was willing to look at the trade imbalances that have americans buying more goods from overseas than they're selling. but the leaders put off decisions on how to fix the imbalances and the president comes away from seoul empty handed on a sought after free trade agreement with south korea .

    >> instead of hitting a home run, we're going to hit singles. but they're really important singles. i'm not interested in signing a trade agreement just for the sake of an announcement.

    >> reporte .

    >> reporter: today the -- wound up on the defense over the federal reserve 's decision to pump $600 billion into the economy, something critics seized on as the u.s. manipulating its own currency.

    >> when i am asked about it, my simple point is to say that from everything i can see, this decision was not one designed to have an impact on the currency, on the dollar. it was designed to grow the economy.

    >> reporter: reflecting on his seven days abroad, the president resisted the suggestion of drumming in the midterm actually weakened him on the world stage.

    >> i have to say my relations have become much stronger with the people i have worked with here. it disininvolves the interests of countries and not all of these are going to be resolved easily. and it's not just a function of personal charm.

    >> reporter: well the president is now in japan for one last summit, a meeting, an economic conference of asian pacific nations and he returns to washington on sunday.

Photos: Obama tours Asia

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  1. Barack Obama waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House upon his return on Nov. 14, in Washington, D.C. Obama returns from a 10-day Asian tour where he held bilateral talks with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Barack Obama visits the Great Buddha statue in Kamakura, Japan, on the sidelines of the ongoing APEC Summit, Nov. 14. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Barack Obama, left, talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders retreat in Yokohama on Nov. 13. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. U.S. President Barack Obama is escorted to his position by Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his wife Nobuko Kan at the APEC Summit in Yokohama, Japan, Nov. 13. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, speaks with President Barack Obama during the opening plenary session of the G20 Summit in Seoul on Friday, November 12. (Andy Rain / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the G20 Summit in Seoul on Nov. 12. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. President Barack Obama gestures as he takes a seat at the G20 Working Dinner at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul on Thursday, Nov.11. Local beef and halibut from the Yellow Sea were on the menu as world leaders opened their G20 summit talks over a welcome dinner. (Yonhap / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. President Barack Obama is escorted to his position by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak as First Lady Kim Yoon-ok looks on during the official arrival for the G20 Summit working dinner at the National Museum in Seoul on Nov. 11. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. President Barack Obama lays a wreath at the Yongsan War Memorial during a Veterans Day event at the U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul on Nov. 11, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. President Barack Obama greets military personnel at a Veterans Day event at the U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul on Nov. 11. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One as he arrives in Seoul, Nov. 10. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama listen as Grand Imam Ali Mustafa Yaqub gives them a tour of the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta on Nov. 10. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Members of the audience cheer President Barack Obama after he delivered a speech at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta on Nov. 10. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to deliver a speech at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta on Nov. 10. Obama said Muslim-majority Indonesia's national philosophy of unity bewteen people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds is an inspiration to the world. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama pose for an official photo with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife Mrs. Yudhoyono at the State Palace Complex Istana Merdeka in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Tuesday, Nov. 9. The two leaders began bilateral talks expected to focus on security and economic issues, on the second leg of Obama's ten-day Asian tour. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. President Obama walks with Michelle Obama along the red carpet with Indonesian officials upon arrival at the Halim Perdana Kusuma airport in Jakarta on Nov. 9. (Roslan Rahman / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The official band runs to get out of the rain moments before the arrival of President Obama for an official arrival ceremony at State Palace Complex-Istana Merdeka on Nov. 9. in Jakarta. Obama made a much-delayed homecoming of sorts to Indonesia, seeking to engage Muslims and cement strategic relations on the second leg of his Asia tour. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. President Obama and the first lady arrive in Jakarta on Nov. 9. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. President Obama toasts alongside India's President Pratibha Patil, right, during a state dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, on Monday, Nov. 8. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, right, argues with an official from the Indian Prime Minister's office after the travelling White House press pool was refused entry to the bilateral meeting between President Obama and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Nov. 8. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The feet of President Barack Obama, right, and First Lady Michelle Obama, left, are seen as they participate in a wreath laying ceremony at Raj Ghat on Nov. 8. The Obamas were visiting the location where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. President Barack Obama reviews the honor guard during an official arrival ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, India on Monday, Nov. 8. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sprinkle flowers after they laid a wreath at Raj Ghat, the Mahatma Gandhi memorial, in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 8. (Charles Dharapak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Activists and survivors of Bhopal gas tragedy sit at a protest against visiting U.S. President Barack Obama in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 8, 2010. The 1984 gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal killed about 15,000 people and sickened some 500,000. (Gurinder Osan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greet each other after a press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 8. (Saurabh Das / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are welcomed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gusharan Kaur as they arrive at Rashtrapati Bahavan in New Delhi on Nov. 8. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. President Barack Obama, right, and first lady Michelle Obama tour through Humayun's Tomb in New Dehli on Nov. 7. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Barack Obama bends down to shake hands with a young child as he tours through Humayun's Tomb in New Dehli on Nov. 7. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as first lady Michelle Obama and Gusharan Kaur, right, watch after arriving in New Delhi on Nov. 7. (Prakash Singh / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Barack Obama, left, watches on as first lady Michelle Obama dances with children during their visit to the Holy Name High School in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 7. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting with students at St. Xavier College in Mumbai on Nov. 7. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Barack Obama shakes hands with students at St. Xavier College in Mumbai on Nov. 7. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Michelle and Barack Obama view the 26/11 memorial Saturday at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, site of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. Obama flew into India's commercial capital on Saturday aiming to boost ties and seal big-ticket business deals to secure jobs and exports days after voters punished his Democrats in mid-term elections. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Activists of the Communist Party of India and members of various other organizations stage a demonstration Saturday against Barack Obama's visit in Mumbai. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. President Barack Obama waves to photographers through a window from backstage as he waits to deliver remarks at the U.S.-India business council and entrepreneurship summit Saturday in Mumbai, India. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. President Barack Obama greets members of the audience after delivering remarks at the U.S.-India business council and entrepreneurship summit Saturday in Mumbai, India. Obama announced $10 billion in business deals. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Handwritten notes by President Barack Obama, top, and first lady Michelle Obama are seen in the guest book during their Saturday tour of the Mani Bhavan Ghandi Museum, where Mahatma Gandhi resided on his visits to Mumbai. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. An Indian shopkeeper shows a cushion with a painting of Michelle Obama designed by Arpita Kalra, in New Delhi, India, Saturday. (Manish Swarup / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Michelle Obama plays a game while entertaining underprivileged children Saturday during her visit to the Mumbai University. (Solaris Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Indian micro-artist Ramesh Sah, 47, shows the nail of his thumb painted with a miniature image of President Barack Obama on Saturday in support of Obama's visit to India in Siliguri. (Diptendu Dutta / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Barack and Michelle Obama descend Air Force One as they disembark Saturday on arrival at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, India. (Solaris Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Indonesian Muslims wear slippers during a protest against the planned visit of President Barack Obama outside the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Sunday, Nov. 7. Obama is scheduled to visit the world's most populous Muslim nation next week. (Dita Alangkara / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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