BEIJING — China has a new status its government doesn’t want – world’s biggest trader.
Official Chinese and American trade data indicates China passed the United States last year in total imports and exports by a margin of $3.866 trillion to $3.822 trillion. That is about $44 billion, or just over 1 percent of China’s total.
The Commerce Ministry has taken the unusual step of publicly denying China is the new No. 1. It says China still trailed the U.S. by $15.6 billion last year – or 0.3 percent – under World Trade Organization standards for valuing goods.
Beijing wants to be a global leader but insists it still is a poor country. It is wary of any change that might erode that status and fuel demands for action to stimulate the global economy or concessions on trade and climate change.
“I think there is some concern from the Ministry of Commerce that this might be used as evidence by Western countries that China is not doing its part to rebalance the global economy,” said Xianfang Ren, China analyst for IHS Global Insight.
China’s explosive trade growth has abruptly altered global business. It created new opportunities for some but prompted complaints by the United States and others over its multibillion-dollar trade surpluses, market barriers and currency controls.
In just five years, China has surpassed the United States as a trading partner for much of the world, including American 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 2011 the two had clearly traded places: 124 countries for China, 76 for the U.S.
Trade is especially sensitive amid anxiety over a possible global slowdown. Beijing’s trading partners accused it of hampering a recovery from the 2008 crisis by obstructing access to its market.
For 2012, Beijing reported a $231 billion global trade surplus on exports of $2.049 trillion and imports of $1.818 trillion. The U.S. reported $1.547 trillion in exports and $2.335 trillion in imports, for a deficit of $788 billion.
The Commerce Ministry’s statement last week said a WTO global trade report due out this month or in early March would recalculate those figures and should show China still No. 2.
Also, some commentators have questioned whether China’s trade data can be trusted because many companies are believed to misreport imports and exports to avoid taxes or receive trade-related payments.