December 3, 2012

China overtaking US as global trader

Joe McDonald and Youkyung Lee / The Associated Press

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click image to enlarge

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

In the U.S., Vermont-based manufacturer SBE Inc. started exporting capacitors — energy-storage devices used in computers, hybrid cars and wind turbines — in 2006. The company now gets 15 to 20 percent of its revenue from China, and has hired 10 employees there.

As China grew richer, its people spent more.

Chinese ate more pork, fried chicken and hamburgers, rapidly sending up the demand for soybeans to make cooking oil and feed for pigs and cows. Some cattle ranchers in Latin America turned grazing land into fields of soy, a crop few in their region consume. Soybean exports helped push Brazil into the China column in 2010, and put China neck and neck with the U.S. as Argentina's top trading partner.

In the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, some 10,000 miles (17,000 kilometers) from Beijing, farmer Agenor Vicente Pelissa and his family raise cattle and soy on 54,300 acres, a farm twice the size of Manhattan. Half their 21,000-ton annual soybean harvest goes to China.

"We've invested more in technology and in better machines and equipment to meet this rising demand," Pelissa said. "If it hadn't been for China, we would not have not modernized our operations, at least not as quickly as we did."

Even in the U.S., better known for manufacturing, farmers are rushing to sell to China. The United States is the largest exporter of soybeans to China, followed by Brazil and Argentina. China's purchases of American soybeans have risen from almost nothing 20 years ago to a quarter of the crop: 24 million tons worth $12.1 billion, America's largest export to China.

The boom is having a profound effect on farming communities, said Grant Kimberley, whose family farm near Des Moines, Iowa, now grows 4,000 acres of soybeans, up from 3,500 eight years ago.

"It's provided more revenue for these farmers than they've ever seen in their lives," said Kimberley, who is also director of market development at the Iowa Soybean Association. He said he sees more young people returning to the farm. "People can see there's an opportunity to make nice livings for their families."

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It was the 2008 global crisis that showed the resilience of China's exporters.

The recession set everyone back, but China less so than the U.S. or other major traders such as Germany. China does a bigger share of its trade with developing countries that suffered less and rebounded faster, while the United States sells to rich economies that are struggling. Chinese companies have boosted exports by 7 percent this year despite anemic global demand.

During the recession, Shin, the South Korean auto parts manufacturer, saw his sales fall 50 percent. He shut one of three production lines, and banks stopped lending him money.

But China's auto market was powering ahead. So Shin hired an employee in China, and is now making plans for his first factory there. On a business trip to Germany, clients told him their Chinese factories would be larger than those at home.

Parents like Shin, who work at companies doing business with China, in turn fed enrollment growth at schools such as Teacher Ching, a Chinese-language kindergarten in Seoul.

Nancy Ching, the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, opened the school with 15 students in 2004, the year after South Korea first moved from the U.S. column to the China column. Today she has 60.

"Mothers who send their kids here believe our children's generation is the China generation," she said in Chinese-accented Korean. "In the future, without learning Chinese, one won't be able to get a job."

China resumed its upward trajectory in the last two years. Even with key Western markets in a slump, exports are up 58 percent since 2009. Imports are up an even sharper 73 percent.

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