China exports weaken ahead of US trade talks

Updated Dec 08 2018


China's export growth sank in November as global demand weakened, adding to pressure on Beijing ahead of trade talks with Washington.

Exports rose 5.4 per cent over a year ago to $227.4 billion, a marked decline from the previous month's 12.6 per cent increase, customs data showed on Saturday. Imports rose three per cent to $182.7b, a sharp reversal from October's 20.3 per cent surge.

That adds to signs a slowdown in the world's second-largest economy is deepening as Chinese leaders prepare for negotiations with United States President Donald Trump over Beijing's technology policy and other irritants.

Chinese exports to the US rose by a relatively robust 12.9 per cent over a year ago to $46.2b. Shipments to the US market have held up as exporters rush to fill orders before additional duty increases, but forecasters say that effect will fade in early 2019.

Imports of American goods rose five per cent to $10.7b, down from the previous month's 8.5 per cent growth. China's politically volatile trade surplus with the United States widened to a record $35.5b.

Trump agreed during a Dec 1 meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to postpone tariff hikes by 90 days while the two sides negotiate. But penalties of up to 25 per cent imposed earlier by both sides on billions of dollars of each other's goods still are in effect.

Companies and investors worry the battle between the two biggest economies will chill global economic growth.

The Chinese economy grew by a relatively strong 6.5 per cent over a year earlier in the quarter ending in September. But that was boosted by government spending on public works construction that helped to mask a slowdown in other parts of the economy.

An official measure of manufacturing activity fell to its lowest level in two years in November. Auto sales have shrunk for the past three months and real estate sales are weak.

Chinese leaders have responded by easing lending controls, boosting spending on construction and promising more help to entrepreneurs who generate the state-dominated economy's new jobs and wealth. But they have moved gradually to avoid reigniting a rise in corporate and local government debt that already is considered to be dangerously high.

The Trump administration imposed 25 per cent duties on $50b of Chinese goods in July in response to complaints that Beijing steals or pressures companies to hand over technology. Washington also imposed a 10 per cent charge on $200b of Chinese goods. That was due to rise to 25 per cent in January but Trump postponed it.

Beijing responded with tariff hikes on $110b of American goods. Trump has threatened to expand US penalties to all goods from China.

Washington, Europe and other trading partners complain plans such as "Made in China 2025", which calls for creating Chinese global champions in artificial intelligence, robotics and other fields, violate Beijing's market-opening obligations.

Trump said Beijing committed to buy American farm goods and cut auto import tariffs as part of the tariff cease-fire. Chinese officials have yet to confirm details of the agreement.

China's Commerce Ministry expressed confidence the two sides can reach a deal during the 90-day delay. That indicates Beijing sees resolving the conflict as too important to allow it to be disrupted by last week's dramatic arrest in Canada of an executive of Huawei Technologies Ltd., one of China's most prominent companies, on accusations of violating trade sanctions on Iran.

Private sector analysts say that is little time to resolve sprawling conflicts that have bedevilled US-Chinese trade for years. That suggests Beijing will need to find ways to persuade Trump to extend his deadline.

The weakness in November's Chinese imports came despite tariff cuts on imports from other markets as part of official efforts to generate consumer-driven economic growth. The ruling Communist Party wants to reduce reliance on trade and investment.

Xi presided over the opening of an import fair in Shanghai in November that was meant to rebrand China as a welcoming import market. Some 3,600 companies from 152 countries took part in the five-day event.

The president promised to open Chinese markets wider, cut costs for importers and increase consumer spending power. But he gave no response to foreign complaints about technology policy and investment barriers.

Also in November, China's exports to the 28-nation European Union rose 11.4 per cent over a year earlier to $35.9b, down from October's 12 per cent growth. Imports rose 13.2 per cent to $24.4b.

China's trade surplus with the EU, its biggest foreign market, widened by 6.4 per cent over a year earlier to $11.5b.