A freight train, carrying goods from China, departs for Vietnam  Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Lies, Damn Lies, and Vietnam’s Trade Statistics

For some, data showing that China has overtaken the United States as Vietnam’s biggest export market is evidence that China’s influence in the region is growing, particularly on strategic issues like sea-lane navigation. But a closer reading of the numbers suggests that the data are wrong – and may be intentionally misleading.

SINGAPORE – On April 17, Bloomberg reported that China had overtaken the United States as Vietnam’s largest export market. According to figures cited by the news organization and tallied by the International Monetary Fund, Vietnam’s exports to China totaled $50.6 billion in 2017, compared to $46.5 billion in exports to the US.

If these numbers are accurate, they would represent a significant shift in the triangular relationship between Vietnam, China, and the US. As Bloomberg succinctly put it, the data underscore how the world’s second-largest economy is “growing its influence in the region” at the expense of the US.

But the trade numbers do not tell the whole story; a closer reading suggests they might even be wrong. Preliminary statistics from the General Department of Vietnam Customs (GDVC), which oversees Vietnam’s trade data, contradict the IMF assessment. According to the GDVC, exports to the US last year totaled $41.6 billion, while exports to China stood at $35.5 billion. In other words, by Vietnam’s count, the US remained its largest export market by a margin of 17%, a gap that held steady during the first three months of 2018. Moreover, the GDVC figures show that historic trends in Vietnam’s trade ties have remained intact; Vietnam continues to run a large trade deficit with China and a surplus with the US.