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China overtaking US as trader

JOE McDONALD and YOUKYUNG LEE

SEOUL, South Korea – Shin Cheol-soo no longer sees his future in the United States. The South Korean businessman supplied components to American automakers for a decade. But this year, he uprooted his family from Detroit and moved home to focus on selling to the new economic superpower: China.

In just five years, China has surpassed the United States as a trading partner for much of the world, including U.S. allies such as South Korea and Australia, according to an Associated Press analysis of trade data. As recently as 2006, the U.S. was the larger trading partner for 127 countries, versus just 70 for China. By last year the two had clearly traded places: 124 countries for China, 76 for the U.S.

In the most abrupt global shift of its kind since World War II, the trend is changing the way people live and do business from Africa to Arizona, as farmers plant more soybeans to sell to China and students sign up to learn Mandarin.

The findings show how fast China has ascended to challenge America’s century-old status as the globe’s dominant trader, a change that is gradually translating into political influence. They highlight how pervasive China’s impact has been, spreading from neighboring Asia to Africa and now emerging in Latin America, the traditional U.S. backyard.

Despite China’s now-slowing economy, its share of world output and trade is expected to keep rising, with growth forecast at up to 8 percent a year over the next decade, far above U.S. and European levels. This growth could strengthen the hand of a new generation of just-named Chinese leaders, even as it fuels strain with other nations.

Last year, Shin’s Ena Industry Co. made half his sales of rubber and plastic parts to U.S. factories. But his plans call for China, which overtook the United States as the biggest auto market in 2009, to rise fivefold to 30 percent of his total by 2015. He and his children are studying Mandarin.

“The United States is a tiger with no power,” Shin said in his office, where three walls are lined with books, many about China. “Nobody can deny that China is the one now rising.”

The United States is still the world’s biggest importer, but China is gaining. It was a bigger market than the United States for 77 countries in 2011, up from 20 in 2000, according to the AP analysis.

The AP is using International Monetary Fund data to measure the importance of trade with China for some 180 countries and track how it changes over time. The analysis divides a nation’s trade with China by its gross domestic product.

The story that emerges is of China’s breakneck rise, rather than of a U.S. decline. In 2002, trade with China was 3 percent of a country’s GDP on average, compared with 8.7 percent with the U.S. But China caught up, and surged ahead in 2008. Last year, trade with China averaged 12.4 percent of GDP for other countries, higher than that with America at any time in the last 30 years.

Of course, not all trade is equal. China’s trade is mostly low-end goods and commodities, while the U.S. competes at the upper end of the market.

Also, even though Chinese companies invest abroad and employ thousands of foreign workers, they lag behind American industry in building global alliances and in innovation, which is still rewarded in the marketplace. China’s competitive edge remains low labor and other costs, while the U.S. is the world’s center for innovation in autos, aerospace, computers, medicine, munitions, finance and pharmaceuticals. The Chinese have yet to build a car that will pass U.S. or European emission standards.

And the United States still does more trade overall – but just barely. If the trend continues, China will push past the U.S. this year, a remarkable feat for a country so poor 30 years ago that the average person had never talked on a telephone.

“The center of gravity of the world economy has moved to the east,” said Mauricio Cardenas, the finance minister in Colombia. Like most of Latin America, his country is still more closely tied to the U.S., but its trade with China has risen from virtually nothing to 2.5 percent of GDP, a more than tenfold increase since 2001. “I would say that there is nothing comparable in the last 50 years.”

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