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The Making of China’s Trade Deficit

BEIJING – China registered a monthly trade deficit of $7.2 billion in March 2010, its first since April 2004. And yet, at around the same time, the United States Congress issued its loudest call ever to classify China as an exchange-rate manipulator, accusing Chinese leaders of maintaining the renminbi’s peg to the dollar in order to guarantee a permanent bilateral trade surplus.

China’s March trade deficit indicates, first of all, that it is incorrect to claim that Chinese economic growth depends mainly on exports. Exports are an important part of the Chinese economy, and any global market fluctuation or external shock will certainly have an impact on overall growth. But, like any other large economy, China’s economy is driven by domestic consumption and investment.

Indeed, China’s exports fell by 16% year on year in 2009, owing to the global financial crisis and recession. Nevertheless, annual GDP grew by 8.7%, thanks to 16.9% growth in consumption (measured by gross sale of consumer goods) and a 33.3% surge in fixed-investment demand.

Moreover, although China’s “trade dependency” is now reckoned to be 70% of GDP, that figure is greatly distorted by the fact that Chinese exports require massive imports of materials and parts. The net value added of total Chinese foreign trade accounts for only about 15% of GDP.