China overtakes US as globe's biggest trading nation

AFP, Saturday 11 Jan 2014

China saw a trade surplus of some $259.7 billion in 2013

China exports
A crane carries a container from a Hanjin Shipping ship at the Hanjin container terminal as a China Shipping Line ship (L) arrives at the Busan New Port in Busan, about 420 km (261 miles) southeast of Seoul, August 8, 2013.

China's annual trade in goods passed the $4 trillion mark for the first time in 2013, official data showed Friday, confirming its position as the globe's biggest trading nation.

Exports from the world's number two economy rose 7.9 percent to $2.21 trillion, while imports increased 7.3 percent to $1.95 trillion, the General Administration of Customs announced.

The trade surplus stood at $259.75 billion, up 12.8 percent from 2012.

Total trade came to $4.16 trillion, an increase of 7.6 percent, just below the government’s eight percent target.

Nonetheless it was a record high and effectively confirmed a historic geo-economic shift, making China the world's biggest trader of physical goods, not including services.

Reports last February said the United States' total trade in goods was lower than China's in 2012, but Customs said due to differences in calculation methods the change happened for the first time in 2013 -- although full US data for the year has yet to be released.

"It is very likely that China overtook the US to become the world's largest trading country in goods in 2013 for the first time," said Customs spokesman Zheng Yuesheng.

The European Union was China's biggest trading partner, Customs said, followed by the United States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Hong Kong and Japan.

Between them the traditional markets of the EU, US and Japan accounted for 33.5 percent of China's trade, down 1.7 percentage points, suggesting emerging markets' share of business was growing.

"Generally speaking, the environment for trade to grow in 2014 is likely to be better than 2013," Zheng said, citing improvements in international demand and domestic economic factors.

For December, China's trade surplus fell 17.4 percent to $25.64 billion, Friday's data showed, short of the median $32.2 billion forecast in a survey of 13 economists by The Wall Street Journal.

Exports increased 4.3 percent to $207.74 billion last month, while imports climbed 8.3 percent to $182.1 billion.

Societe Generale economist Yao Wei in Hong Kong saw the better-than-expected gain in imports as a positive sign.

"The upside surprise suggested that the domestic growth momentum was largely intact at yearend," Yao said in a report.

China's 2013 trade performance came as the economy turned in a mixed performance, slowing during the first half of the year before showing some vigour in the final six months.

Worries over yuan strength

A government report last month cited in state media suggested gross domestic product (GDP) grew 7.6 percent in 2013, down from 7.7 percent in 2012, which was the worst performance in 13 years.

Wendy Chen, Shanghai-based economist at Nomura International, told AFP that "economic growth may have peaked in the third quarter and dropped back in the fourth quarter".

"It will likely continue to be on a downward trend in the first two quarters of this year," she added.

President Xi Jinping -- who assumed office in March after becoming head of the ruling Communist Party in November 2012 -- wants to transform the economy to one in which domestic demand is the key growth driver, rather than public investment.

China’s yuan currency gained more than three percent against the dollar last year, hitting a series of record highs since Beijing launched its modern foreign exchange market in 1994.

The rise came despite worries over the economy and followed US political pressure to allow the yuan to appreciate.

Chinese exporters worry persistent yuan strength is hurting sales by making their products more expensive overseas.

On Friday, the yuan, also known as the renminbi (RMB), was quoted at 6.0522 to the dollar, near the symbolic 6.0 mark, according to the China Foreign Exchange Trade System.

The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index, meanwhile, closed down 0.71 percent.

"We are not as bullish on China’s external demand as we expect a strong RMB, rising labour costs, and weak emerging markets will continue to weigh on China’s exports," Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Lu Ting said in an analysis.

Attention will now turn to the release of China's annual GDP figure on January 20.

Official figures last week showed manufacturing growth slowed in December for the first time in six months, suggesting the economy faced headwinds at the end of the year.

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