China Breaks Export Records as US Returns to COVID-19 Lockdowns, But Experts Warn Gains Won’t Last

© REUTERS / Aly SongContainers are seen at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, in Shanghai, China, February 13, 2017
Containers are seen at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, in Shanghai, China, February 13, 2017 - Sputnik International
Having successfully controlled and eliminated the COVID-19 outbreaks in the country earlier this year, China’s economy has come roaring back as the year closes out. However, some experts warn the gains may only be temporary, as Western economies aren’t going to remain hamstrung by sanitary restrictions forever.

China’s General Administration of Customs reported Monday the country’s exports had risen by 21% in November as compared to the previous year. That is not only higher than October’s 11.4% increase, but also higher than the 12% increase economists had forecast for November, the Wall Street Journal noted

The vast majority of that increase came from trade with the United States, which increased by 46% last month. The Journal also calculated that China’s exports to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members increased by 10% and to the European Union by 8.6%. Altogether, that gives the People’s Republic of China a $75.4 billion trade surplus.

China’s exports to Australia, another country with which it has sparred over trade concerns in recent weeks, also rose dramatically last month, increasing by 22.6%.

But China didn’t just sell more last month; it bought more, too. Imports grew by 5% in November as compared to November 2019, but imports of Australian goods went up by 9.4%, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) noted. Imports from the US increased by 33% as compared to a year ago.

In January, when China’s Wuhan was the only location with a COVID-19 outbreak, Washington and Beijing finalized Phase 1 of a historic trade deal that saw China agree to increase its purchases of US goods by $200 billion over 2017 levels by the end of the year. However, US Department of Commerce statistics cited by Politico suggest that China remained $140 billion short of that goal by the end of October, the most recent month for which there is data.

“COVID has temporarily increased the difficulty of decoupling from China – it was already incredibly difficult,” Rory Green, China economist at TS Lombard, told SCMP, noting China makes many of the masks and gloves needed for safety as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage in the US and several other countries. However, many of the electronic devices now being bought as Christmas gifts in the West are also made in China, helping to drive exports up.

“Many COVID-related purchases won’t happen again and we eventually expect a global rotation from goods to services consumption as vaccine availability reduces the need for social distancing,” Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics, told the Financial Times. “This will weigh on China’s export performance relative to global demand, after the market share gains in 2020.” 

He predicted that in 2021, as COVID-19 vaccines begin their mass roll-outs, economic activity will return to normal, and China’s gains will slacken.

Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University, told the SCMP, “With the rest of the world also struggling with weak demand, I think trade tensions around the world can only get worse.”

For the moment, however, skyrocketing cases in the US have brought the most stringent lockdowns since the spring, when the onset of the pandemic brought near-total economic paralysis as hundreds of millions of Americans began weekslong furloughs in a bid to stem the virus’ spread.

According to data collected by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the seven-day average for COVID-19-related deaths is 2,171, and the seven-day new case average is at a record-breaking 191,615 per day. In the US state of California, which has an economy roughly the size of France’s, a new stay-at-home order has been issued banning dining at restaurants, gatherings from multiple households and nonessential travel. The CDC has also issued new advisories for mask-wearing indoors.
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