Which Country Is the Largest Exporter of Goods in the World?

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China has been the largest exporter of goods in the world since 2009. Official estimates suggest the country’s total exports amounted to $2.641 trillion in 2019. In 2013, China became the largest trading nation in the world. The United States previously held that position.

The title of largest exporter of goods in the world has changed numerous times in the past, and it will probably change again. In the 19th century, Britain was known as the “workshop of the world” and ruled a global empire based on trade. By the 21st century, China rose to become “the world’s factory.” However, the Silk Route and the size of China’s economy suggest that it was often the largest exporter of goods in previous centuries.

Key Takeaways

  • China has been the largest exporter of goods in the world since 2009, and total Chinese exports amounted to $2.641 trillion in 2019.
  • China’s exports and economy grew dramatically following the opening of the country under Deng Xiaoping.
  • Rising trade tensions and the coronavirus crisis created challenges for China’s exports in 2020.
  • The most prominent goods among the finished products exported from China were consumer electronics, data processing technologies, clothing, other textiles, optical gear, and medical equipment.
  • The EU, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea were among China’s largest trading partners.

The Growth of China’s Exports

China’s growth into a global trading giant was exceptionally rapid. For several centuries, the Chinese government pursued isolationist policies. This isolation continued under Chairman Mao Zedong, but after his death in 1976, there was a new focus on trade and foreign investment. China’s economic growth has generally been high since that time.

Deng Xiaoping began China’s economic opening to the world in the late 1970s. The role of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) declined as China went down the “capitalist road.” Between 1983 to 2013, China averaged annual economic growth of about 10% per year. China pursued an export-led growth strategy during this period.

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Special economic zones (SEZs) in China played a major role in the country’s economic boom and the growth of exports. Within SEZs, such as Shenzhen, China offered tax incentives to foreign investors. These incentives included the ability to import equipment and technology tax-free.

Xi Jinping attempted to keep China’s annual growth high through increased debt, but he encountered several challenges. First, the rise of protectionism in the U.S. and China’s persistently high trade surplus with the U.S. brought about a trade war. Then, the coronavirus pandemic led to a severe economic downturn in China during early 2020.

The Coronavirus Crisis

In 2020, the coronavirus crisis had a substantial negative impact on global trade. However, China’s exports recovered quickly. China initially benefited from high demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks. Demand for goods like shoes and consumer electronics increased later in the year as the global economy improved.

On the other hand, China’s handling of the coronavirus was widely criticized, with large majorities in many countries disapproving. Furthermore, the crisis led to a dramatic increase in unfavorable views of China and a loss of international confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping. In this environment, China’s long-term future as the world’s largest exporter of goods is in doubt.

China’s Top Exports

China had a large number of dominant industries that created products and materials for export. The most prominent goods among the finished products exported from China were consumer electronics, data processing technologies, clothing, other textiles, optical gear, and medical equipment. China also had the world’s biggest new car market and exported a significant amount of raw materials, particularly steel. These raw materials were exported to other countries to be processed.

China’s Trading Partners

Two of China’s main trading partners were its close geographical neighbors—Japan and South Korea. China did a great deal of business with the U.S. as well, although the U.S. labeled China a currency manipulator amid substantial trade tensions. China also had significant trade relations with the EU. The EU was China’s largest trading partner early in the 21st century, and China was second only to the U.S. among the EU’s trading partners.

The Accuracy of the Data

There were concerns about the accuracy of Chinese data collection when it comes to exports. Some observers suspected that China overstated its total exports to avoid controls on international transactions in a bid to bring more money into the country.

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