There are lots of ways to look at the rise of China as a global economic power. Here's one.
These three graphs (created using this tool, from the FT) show the astonishing rise of China's foreign reserves — in other words, how much foreign money China has stashed away.
If we go back to 2000, China had $166 billion in foreign reserves. (Click on the magnifying glass below each graph to see a bigger version.)
But in the years that followed, China became an export superpower; it sold way more stuff to the rest of the world than it bought. Hundreds of billions of dollars flowed into China. By 2006, China's foreign reserves had grown sixfold, to more than $1 trillion.
The growth continued through the financial crisis and its aftermath. Between 2006 and 2010, China's foreign currency reserves more than doubled; as of last year, they stood at over $2.6 trillion.
China's trade surplus, and its accumulation of foreign reserves, is part of what people mean when they talk about "global imbalances." (Also part of the imbalance: the U.S. trade deficit.)
This issue was high on the list when the world's biggest economic powers got together last year at the G-20 meeting. But there wasn't any resolution. Here's what we said at the time:
In particular (and not surprisingly) they couldn't figure out what to do about a deep, long-standing problem: Year after year, the U.S. imports more than it exports, and China exports more than it imports.
The grease that makes this wheel spin is China's ongoing purchase of huge sums of U.S. Treasury bonds. That keeps China's currency and exports cheap, and makes it easier for the U.S. to prop up its economy with persistent budget deficits.
The U.S. came into the conference backing a plan that would push countries to limit their trade surpluses and deficits. China came complaining about the Fed's recent decision to create $600 billion out of thin air, which drove down the value of the dollar relative to other currencies.
But in the end, everybody basically said, "Yeah, we know this imbalance is a problem, but we can't agree on what to do about it."