TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan and China will start trading their currencies directly in Tokyo and Shanghai from June 1 in a move that shores up trade and financial ties between Asia's two biggest economies and also marks another baby step to raise the yuan's international role.
The step eliminates the use of the dollar to set the exchange rate and follows an agreement struck by the leaders of the two countries in December, which also involves Japan buying Chinese government debt and efforts to forge a free trade pact between China, Japan and South Korea.
"This is part of China's broader strategy to reduce dependence on the dollar. The yen has been chosen because of large trade flows between the two countries," said Dariusz Kowalczyk, senior economist and strategist at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong.
"Volumes of currency trading on shore are small, but this could lead to an expansion of trading with other currencies. It would be easier for China to expand into other Asian currencies."
Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi, who announced the decision in Tokyo, stressed the cost benefits of the move.
"By conducting transactions without using the third country's currency, it will bring merits of reducing transaction costs and lowering risks involved in settlements at financial institutions," Azumi told reporters after a cabinet meeting.
The People's Bank of China noted benefits for mutual trade, but also tied the decision to China's drive to boost the use of the yuan as a settlement currency for trade and financial transactions.
"Developing the direct yuan/yen trading will help form the direct yuan/yen exchange rate and reduce the trading cost for entities and promote the use of the yuan and yen in bilateral trade and investment as well as help strengthen financial cooperation between the two countries," it said in a statement.
A separate statement issued by the China Foreign Exchange Trade System said it will provide a market-making system for direct yuan/yen trading.
Until now yen-yuan rates were calculated on the basis of their respective rates against the dollar, so the move is expected to narrow trading spreads, lower transaction costs and allow more trade deals to be settled directly.
For Japan, which in March pledged to buy about $10 billion of Chinese government debt, becoming the first major economy to do so, the move could strengthen ties with its biggest trading partner.
Despite sometimes rancorous political ties between the two neighbours, Japan's economic fortunes are increasingly tied to China's economic growth and consumer demand.
Dealers in Shanghai said the near-term effect would be probably higher trading volumes and lower costs.
"Direct yuan-yen trading is likely to cut trading costs, boosting yuan-yen trading liquidity," said a dealer at a foreign bank. "Most yuan trading against the yen now goes through the dollar, because traders refer to dollar-yuan value to price yen-yuan."
But some played down the broader impact.
"From what I can see, it doesn't actually include any opening up of the capital account at all. It just allows a direct cross to be traded rather than actually increasing the amount of flow that can happen onshore to offshore," Dominic Bunning, currency strategist at HSCB in Hong Kong, said.
"It seems to be more of a technical issue rather than a major development."
The move to facilitate yen-yuan trading and the debt deal are part of Beijing's long-term efforts to elevate the yuan's status as an international currency, which so far have mainly centred on China's promotion of the yuan to settle trade.
Beijing has struck agreements with several nations from Malaysia to Belarus and Argentina on the use of the yuan in trade and other transactions. It has expanded a pilot programme started in 2009 into a nationwide one allowing firms to settle their trade in yuan.
The result has been a relative surge in the use of the currency. More than 9 percent of China's total trade was settled in yuan in 2011, up from just 0.7 percent in 2010.
Few argue against the idea that the yuan will one day become a reserve currency, given World Bank predictions that China will overtake the United States as the world's top economy before 2030. But to achieve that the yuan would need to become fully convertible and Beijing has yet to indicate any timetable for reaching that stage.
Additional reporting by Kevin Yao in Beijing, Stanley White in Tokyo and Lu Jianxin in Shanghai; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Neil Fullick