China’s massive export engine sputtered for the second year in a row in 2016, with shipments falling in the face of persistently weak global demand and officials voicing fears of a trade
war with the United States that is clouding the outlook for 2017.
In one week, China’s leaders will see if President-elect Donald Trump
makes good on a campaign pledge to brand Beijing
a currency manipulator on his first day in office, and starts to follow up on a threat to slap high tariffs on Chinese goods.
Even if the Trump administration takes no concrete action immediately, analysts say the spectre of deteriorating US-China trade
and political ties is likely to weigh on the confidence of exporters and investors worldwide.
The world’s largest trading nation posted gloomy data on Friday, with 2016 exports falling 7.7 per cent and imports down 5.5 per cent. The export drop was the second annual decline in a row and the worst since the depths of the global crisis in 2009.
It will be tough for foreign trade
to improve this year, especially if the inauguration of Trump and other major political changes limit the growth of China’s exports due to greater protectionist measures, the country’s customs agency said on Friday. “The trend of anti-globalisation is becoming increasingly evident, and China
is the biggest victim of this trend,” customs spokesman Huang Songping told reporters.
“We will pay close attention to foreign trade
policy after Trump is inaugurated president,” Huang said. Trump will be sworn in on January 20. China’s trade
surplus with the United States was $366 billion in 2015, according to US
customs data, which Trump could seize on in a bid to bring Beijing
to the negotiating table to press for concessions, economists at Bank of America
Merrill Lynch said in a recent research note.
A sustained trade
surplus of more than $20 billion against the United States is one of three criteria used by the US
Treasury to designate another country as a currency manipulator. China
is likely to point out that its own data showed the surplus fell to $250.79 billion in 2016 from $260.91 billion in 2015, but that may get short shrift in Washington.
“Our worry is that Trump’s stance towards China’s trade
could bring about long-term structural weakness in China’s exports,” economists at ANZ said in a note.
policy will likely motivate US
businesses to move their manufacturing facilities away from China, although the latter’s efforts in promoting high-end manufacturing may offset part of the loss.” On Wednesday, China
may have set off a warning shot to the Trump administration. Beijing
announced even higher anti-dumping duties on imports of certain animal feed from the United States than it proposed last year.
“Instead of caving in and trying to prepare voluntary export restraints like Japan did with their auto exports back in the 1980s, we believe China
would start by strongly protesting against the labelling with the IMF, but not to initiate more aggressive retaliation... immediately,” the BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research report said.
“That said, even a ‘war of words’ could weaken investor confidence not only in the US
and China, but globally.”
CHINA'S DECEMBER EXPORTS FALL
December exports fell by a more-than-expected 6.1 per cent from a year earlier, while imports beat forecasts slightly, growing 3.1 per cent on strong demand for commodities from coal to iron ore which has helped buoy resources prices globally.
Analysts polled by Reuters had expected December exports to have fallen 3.5 per cent on-year, a contraction from an unexpected 0.1 per cent rise in November that had raised hopes that sluggish global demand was bottoming out.
Imports were expected to have grown for a second month but at a slower pace of 2.7 per cent, after soaring 6.7 per cent in November.
reported a trade
surplus of $40.82 billion for December, versus November's $44.61 billion.
While the export picture has been grim all year, with shipments rising only one month in 12, import trends have been more encouraging, pointing to an increase in domestic demand starting around mid-year as companies imported more raw materials from iron ore to copper to help feed a construction boom.
protectionism is on the rise but China
is relying more on domestic demand," said Wen Bin, an economist at Minsheng Bank in Beijing.
Weak exports have forced China's policymakers to rely on higher government spending and massive lending to boost domestic demand this year, at the risk of adding to a huge pile of debt.
But worries are mounting that the red-hot property market may have peaked, meaning China
may have less appetite this year for imports of commodities such as copper and steel for construction work.