December 3, 2012

China overtaking US as global trader

Joe McDonald and Youkyung Lee / The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — Shin Cheol-soo no longer sees his future in the United States.

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Stacey Rassas, right, a quality control manager at a Suntech Power Holdings Co., a Chinese-owned solar panel manufacturer, examines a solar panel with her co-worker Frank Garcia at a company facility in Goodyear, Ariz., recently. The factory makes solar panels for one of the world's biggest solar manufacturers.

AP

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.

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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."

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Trade is a bit like football — the balance of exports and imports, like the game score, is a neat snapshot of a jumble of moves that make up the economy, and both sides are apt to accuse each other of cheating from time to time. Also, the U.S. and China are both rivals and partners who can't have a match without each other, and a strong performance from both is good for the entire league.

Trade may get less publicity than military affairs or diplomacy, yet it is commerce that generates jobs and raises living standards. Trade can also translate into political power. As shopkeepers say, the customer is always right: Governments listen to countries that buy their goods, and the threat to stop buying is one of the most potent diplomatic weapons.

China has been slow to flex its political muscle on a large scale but is starting to push back in disputes over trade, exchange rates and climate change.

"When a German chancellor or French president goes to China, right at the top of the list, he's trying to sell Airbuses and other products and is being sensitive to China's political concerns, like on human rights," said C. Fred Bergsten, a former U.S. Treasury Department official who heads the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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