The renminbi (RMB) has emerged as one of the most widely traded currencies in recent years, signaling China’s rise as an economic superpower. As China continues to liberalize its financial system and the RMB becomes more accessible worldwide, the currency is poised to challenge the U.S. dollar’s dominance in global finance and trade.

Background on the Renminbi

The RMB is the official currency of the People’s Republic of China. Also known as the yuan, the RMB was first issued by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) in 1949. For decades it was pegged to the U.S. dollar and not freely convertible or accessible outside of mainland China. This all changed in 2005 when China adopted a managed floating exchange rate system, allowing the RMB to fluctuate within a regulated band based on market supply and demand.

In August 2015, the PBOC authorized devaluation of the RMB by nearly 2% against the dollar, sending shockwaves through global markets. This shift to a more market-oriented exchange rate was a milestone in China’s financial reforms, loosening the rigid peg that had been in place since 2005.

The Path to Internationalization

The Chinese government has been pushing for greater use of the RMB in cross-border trade and investment since 2009. This is part of a long-term strategy to elevate the currency’s status as a global medium of exchange on par with other major currencies like the U.S. dollar, euro, Japanese yen, and British pound.

Full RMB internationalization involves three key dimensions:

1. RMB Use in Trade Settlement

One of the first steps was allowing approved enterprises in mainland China and overseas to use RMB for cross-border trade settlement. By 2015, around 25% of China’s total foreign trade was settled in RMB, up from just 3% in 2010. The share of global payments conducted in RMB more than tripled from 2015 to 2020.

2. RMB-Denominated Financial Products

China has been promoting issuance of RMB-denominated bonds and other financial products outside of mainland China. The “dim sum” bond market has grown rapidly in Hong Kong, Singapore, London and other major financial centers. Chinese authorities have also established RMB clearing banks and offshore RMB centers to expand the currency’s circulation globally.

3. RMB Exchange Rate Flexibility

As noted above, China has gradually loosened the RMB’s peg to the U.S. dollar to allow more exchange rate flexibility. However, the currency is still managed within a tight trading band. For the RMB to become a true global currency, most experts agree it will need to float freely based on market dynamics rather than strict government controls.

RMB Internationalization Milestones

Here are some key milestones in the RMB’s journey to becoming a global currency:

  • 2009 – China establishes pilot RMB trade settlement schemes.
  • 2010 – RMB offshore markets launch in Hong Kong and Singapore.
  • 2013 – The RMB becomes the second most used currency in trade finance after the U.S. dollar.
  • 2015 – The International Monetary Fund (IMF) designates the RMB as one of five official reserve currencies.
  • 2016 – RMB joins the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights basket along with the dollar, euro, yen and pound.
  • 2017 – The RMB becomes the fifth most actively traded currency in the world after the USD, EUR, JPY, and GBP.
  • 2021 – Payments in RMB represent 4% of global foreign exchange transactions.
  • 2022 – cumulative RMB deposits in Hong Kong exceed RMB 1 trillion for the first time.

Why Do Central Banks Buy Reserve Currencies Like the RMB?

Central banks purchase reserve currencies like the U.S. dollar and euro to prop up their own domestic currencies and stabilize local markets. Holding reserves helps hedge against external shocks. For example, if a country’s currency suddenly plummets in value, the central bank can sell off reserves of a stable foreign currency like the USD to offset the drop.

China has been encouraging central banks, especially in developing markets, to add RMB to their portfolio of reserve currencies. This expands the currency’s global reach. Major holders of RMB reserves include central banks in Nigeria, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, Australia and Chile.

Benefits and Drawbacks of RMB Internationalization

RMB internationalization offers potential benefits as well as risks and challenges for China:


  • Promotes use of RMB for trade and financial transactions globally, reducing reliance on USD.
  • Strengthens China’s political and economic clout on the world stage.
  • Enables China to pay for imports, overseas investment and aid in its own currency.
  • Expands the influence of Chinese monetary policy abroad.
  • Lowers currency exchange costs for Chinese firms trading overseas.


  • Reduces control over domestic monetary policy and financial markets.
  • Exposes China to volatile cross-border capital flows that could destabilize markets.
  • Requires further liberalization and deregulation of banking system and capital account.
  • Potential for other nations to blame China for depreciation of their currencies.
  • Risks related to reduced efficacy of capital controls.

Challenges for RMB Internationalization

Despite impressive progress, the RMB still only accounts for about 3% of global foreign exchange transactions. Most cross-border financing and lending is still conducted in USD.

Full internationalization requires clearing several hurdles, including:

  • Lifting constraints on cross-border RMB fund flows. China still maintains strict capital controls.
  • Allowing greater exchange rate flexibility. The RMB is still heavily managed by the PBOC.
  • Expanding RMB access and circulation globally. This involves increasing offshore RMB liquidity.
  • Maintaining growth and stability of China’s financial markets. This helps strengthen confidence in RMB.
  • Rolling back PBOC intervention in currency markets. Market-driven exchange rates are needed.
  • Further opening and modernizing of China’s financial sector. This includes allowing foreign banks to operate more freely.
  • Promoting use of RMB invoicing in commodities like oil and raw materials. Most trading still happens in USD.

Outlook for RMB Internationalization

Most experts agree the RMB will likely continue playing an increasingly prominent role in global markets, even if full convertibility is still years away.

Key factors shaping the currency’s trajectory include:

  • Ongoing trade tensions between China and the West could accelerate RMB adoption if transaction costs in USD increase.
  • China’s new digital currency may boost the currency’s profile, especially for cross-border e-commerce and digital payments.
  • The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) offers opportunities to use the RMB for regional trade within Asia.
  • Demand for RMB in emerging markets along China’s Belt and Road Initiative could continue surging.
  • China’s balance of payments surplus means less pressure on the PBOC to internationalize the RMB rapidly.
  • The USD is still by far the world’s dominant reserve currency, limiting near-term prospects for RMB parity.

In the long run, the RMB may be poised to join or even surpass the USD as a leading global currency, but this shift will likely take many years to play out. In the meantime, expect the RMB’s role in international finance and trade to continue expanding incrementally.


The internationalization of the RMB is a key milestone in China’s economic development and emergence as a global superpower. By increasing use of its currency in cross-border transactions and as central bank reserves, China can exert greater influence on global markets while also reducing dependence on the U.S. dollar-dominated financial system.

However, full RMB convertibility faces an array of challenges, from foreign exchange controls to limited flexibility against the USD. The Chinese government is taking gradual steps to liberalize finance and loosen currency restrictions, but this process could span decades. Near-term prospects for the RMB dislodging the dollar as the premier global reserve currency remain distant.

Nonetheless, the RMB’s importance as a medium of exchange and store of value is clearly trending upward. For global businesses and investors, understanding RMB internationalization trends is critical for navigating China’s immense economic potential as well as the associated risks. The rise of the RMB has wide-ranging implications for trade, finance and monetary policy worldwide.