U.S. regains top spot due to short-term factors
The U.S. regained its position as the world's top trader in 2016, overtaking China thanks to market fluctuations and changes in the duo's comparative advantage, experts said on Wednesday.
China's foreign trade is now driven by quality and efficiency, the experts noted.
In 2016, China's foreign trade slumped 0.9 percent year-on-year to 24.3 trillion yuan ($3.53 trillion), according to a statement on the website of State Council, the country's cabinet, on Tuesday. Although the decline narrowed 6.1 percentage points from that of 2015, total trade by the U.S. surpassed that of China by $20 billion last year.
In 2013, China replaced the U.S. for the first time to become the world's biggest trading nation. The reversal last year has sparked concerns over whether China can secure its position as the global trade powerhouse.
In response to these concerns, Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng said at a press briefing on Tuesday that the gap reflects fluctuations in exchange rates and commodity prices.
"The import structures of the U.S. and China are different. While consumption and manufactured goods represent a large proportion of U.S. imports, China has imported bulk commodities such as energy and resources in recent years," said Li Jian, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation.
He said that was why U.S. imports maintained robust growth last year while those of China plunged.
Besides, trade protectionism has risen amid sluggish global economic growth, "making China - a big trading nation - a frequent target of unfair economic treatment," Li told the Global Times on Wednesday.
A total of 119 trade disputes were launched against China last year, which dragged down the country's trade, Li said.
China is in a transitional phase during which its traditional advantages diminish while new comparative advantages develop, experts said.
"The 'advantage switch' also indicates China's shrinking exports these days," Li said.
Gao stressed that it's quite normal to see fluctuations of tens of billions of dollars because of short-lived market factors. Still, "China was the world's largest exporter in 2016," Gao said. "The country's imports and exports were nearly $4 trillion last year, with a trade surplus of more than $500 billion."
Meanwhile, the export structure is optimizing. "The Chinese government now prioritizes quality and efficiency, instead of scale and speed," Gao said.
The country will not "blindly expand exports" at the expense of resources and the environment, as the period of rapid development based on low costs has ended, Gao noted.
In 2016, China's exports of high value-added, large-scale complete equipment rose more than 5 percent year-on-year. High-tech aerospace and telecommunication equipment increased more than 10 percent compared with 2015.