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Economic rifts loom as G-20 leaders meet

By Kevin Voigt, CNN
Anti-G20 activists from Oxfam wear masks depicting the G-20 leaders during a rally on November 10.
Anti-G20 activists from Oxfam wear masks depicting the G-20 leaders during a rally on November 10.
  • Expectations are low as world leaders gather for the G-20 summit
  • Rancor over currency exchange rates have divided member nations
  • Will approve changes to allow more emerging nations on IMF board
  • Analyst: Anxiety among emerging economies "that the G-20 may not last"

(CNN) -- The world's top economies face deep divisions on the path to recovery as international leaders gather in South Korea for the G-20 summit.

Gone is the unity that marked the previous G-20 summits --- first held in November 2008 in the wake of the financial crisis --- as rancor over "currency wars" ratchet tensions among the United States, China, Europe and emerging economies.

U.S. momentum to pressure China on the value of its currency evaporated last week when the U.S. Federal Reserve announced it would pump $600 billion into the economy. The move, known as "QE2," will push down the value of the dollar as it pressures emerging economy currencies to rise, and has been criticized around the world.

"It's setting up to be one of the more interesting G-20s," said Kirby Daley, senior strategist for Newedge Group. "This time the U.S. has achieved something great; that is, basically turning the whole world against it. QE2 has sort of become the U.S.'s de facto foreign policy, because it's essentially affecting every country, every economy, in the world."

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said at a conference last week that, "With all due respect, U.S. policy is clueless." He said the move undermined efforts by Washington and European leaders to persuade Beijing to allow the yuan to rise faster.

"The exchange rate dispute is the most counter-productive debate in the world. Appreciation does not work like magic wand," Li Daokui, an adviser to China's Central Bank, wrote in a commentary. "It is like the captains of the two giant ships spending precious time arguing about the best techniques to steer the course and causing the ships eventually collide."

Why does the U.S. need China?

Divisions among G-20 countries are inevitable as the world moves slowly toward recovery, analysts said.

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U.S. and the world at G-20

"In a way, the summits last year were a little bit easier in that there was a convergence of interests. The globe was on the brink of a meltdown, therefore the expectations and incentives of various leaders were aligned," said Domenico Lombardi, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"Now we are in a completely different situation, where the global economy has stabilized. But the recovery is still fragile, still uneven, so there are different attitudes about how to handle this," said Lombardi, of the Washington-based think tank.

The G-20 works better in a crisis, said John Kirton, co-director of the G-20 Research Group at the University of Toronto.

"The summits did a terrific job during the Great Recession. That's why Washington, London and Pittsburgh did well. The Toronto summit [in June] was galvanized by the Greece crisis," Kirton said.

"Now, at the moment, there is no similar crisis as acute," Kirton said. "It's back to a kind of business as usual and these diverse countries won't cooperate."

The fear in Seoul is that a summit without credible results could erode the effectiveness of future meetings.

"The anxieties among the Koreans and other emerging nations are that the G-20 may not last," said Avinash Persaud, chairman of Intelligence Capital, who attended recent G-20 deputy finance minister meetings. "It's not clear it's a successful, functioning group."

Most of the heavy lifting for this G-20 summit was done last month at the finance ministers meeting, where representatives hashed out an agreement that gives emerging economies better representation on the International Monetary Fund board. Still elusive, however, are firm targets in current account surpluses or deficits aimed at easing trade imbalances.

"I'm not looking for any substantive agreement that will change policy," said Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, Belgium.

"Let them all go away saving face. The main purpose is understanding what the true driving forces are," Gros said. "The U.S. walks away knowing the Chinese are not devilish; they are just concerned about growth model. The Chinese understand that the U.S. didn't do QE2 to hurt their economies. That would be useful in calming down the waters."