AP IMPACT: China surpasses US as top global trader

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 18, 2012 at 4:58 am •  Published: December 18, 2012
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Even in the U.S., better known for manufacturing, farmers are rushing to sell to China. The United States is the largest exporter of soybeans to China, followed by Brazil and Argentina. China's purchases of American soybeans have risen from almost nothing 20 years ago to a quarter of the crop: 24 million tons worth $12.1 billion, America's largest export to China.

The boom is having a profound effect on farming communities, said Grant Kimberley, whose family farm near Des Moines, Iowa, now grows 4,000 acres of soybeans, up from 3,500 eight years ago.

"It's provided more revenue for these farmers than they've ever seen in their lives," said Kimberley, who is also director of market development at the Iowa Soybean Association. He said he sees more young people returning to the farm. "People can see there's an opportunity to make nice livings for their families."

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It was the 2008 global crisis that showed the resilience of China's exporters.

The recession set everyone back, but China less so than the U.S. or other major traders such as Germany. China does a bigger share of its trade with developing countries that suffered less and rebounded faster, while the United States sells to rich economies that are struggling. Chinese companies have boosted exports by 7 percent this year despite anemic global demand.

During the recession, Shin, the South Korean auto parts manufacturer, saw his sales fall 50 percent. He shut one of three production lines, and banks stopped lending him money.

But China's auto market was powering ahead. So Shin hired an employee in China, and is now making plans for his first factory there. On a business trip to Germany, clients told him their Chinese factories would be larger than those at home.

Parents like Shin, who work at companies doing business with China, in turn fed enrollment growth at schools such as Teacher Ching, a Chinese-language kindergarten in Seoul.

Nancy Ching, the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, opened the school with 15 students in 2004, the year after South Korea first moved from the U.S. column to the China column. Today she has 60.

"Mothers who send their kids here believe our children's generation is the China generation," she said in Chinese-accented Korean. "In the future, without learning Chinese, one won't be able to get a job."

China resumed its upward trajectory in the last two years. Even with key Western markets in a slump, exports are up 58 percent since 2009. Imports are up an even sharper 73 percent.

Rising incomes have driven demand for wine and other luxury goods, making China a lifeline for European and American vineyards when the global crisis battered traditional markets.

The Chinese have "helped Bordeaux a lot these past three years," said Florence Cathiard, owner of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte in the Pessac-Leognan area of France's southwest, home of high-end Bordeaux wine.

France's wine exports to China first surged in 2009, and by last year, China had surpassed the U.S. as a customer by volume. Americans still spend more, because they buy more expensive wines. But China is developing a taste for grand cru wine, the "great growths" that are considered exceptional and command higher prices.

Cathiard acknowledged that she was initially wary of China as a reliable market for her high-end wines. But the turning point for her came around 2008, when she was blown away by the number of people showing up for a master class by her chateau at a wine expo in Hong Kong.

China now accounts for 25 percent of Cathiard's sales, making it her largest market.

The owners of Chateau Haut-Bailly, also in Pessac-Leognan, first traveled to China to test the waters in 2000, and it was too early.

"At the time, they didn't know what a cork or a corkscrew was," said Veronique Sanders, the chateau's general manager.

Chinese sophistication has since advanced rapidly, she said.

"The difference with other emerging markets we've gone into in the past is the size of the country, which means it has an absolutely incredible potential."

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The next step in China's trade evolution is to move beyond exporting TVs and lawn furniture to selling services and investing abroad.

The investment trend started with state-owned companies that bought stakes in foreign mines and oil fields. Smaller and private Chinese companies followed, acquiring foreign enterprises to gain a bigger foothold in overseas markets, more access to resources and better technology for their own development.

China is now pushing into construction and engineering, where U.S. and European companies have long dominated.

In Algeria, Chinese state-owned companies pushed aside established French and German rivals to win contracts to build a $12 billion cross-country highway and the $1.3 billion Great Mosque of Algeria. The Chinese have also built highways, dams and other projects in developing countries and are starting to win contracts in the U.S. and Europe.

On a new 50-kilometer (30-mile) highway leading north of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, dark asphalt stretches across six to eight lanes.

The $300 million road was built by three Chinese companies and financed by the African Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China. It has cut a trip that took several hours 18 months ago to 10 minutes, said Joseph Makori, a professional driver.

"When we see the people from America, they say, 'We want to assist Kenya'," said Makori as he looked for work at an interchange about 10 kilometers from downtown. "But I don't see it. China comes and I see one thing: the road."

Chinese companies are starting to win government contracts in Kenya, which has ports that offer access to landlocked Uganda, South Sudan and Rwanda. Governments in Africa are keen to work with China because it does not tie development to human rights or democracy, said Stephen Mutoro, secretary general of the Consumer Federation of Kenya.

"China appears to have a long-term plan based on increasing its commercial interests where governance issues are given a back burner," Mutoro said. The experience of Congo might foreshadow a more complex approach that Beijing envisages for other African nations. In 2008, the two governments signed a $9 billion deal for Chinese companies to build 177 hospitals and health centers, two hydroelectric dams and thousands of miles of railways and roads. In exchange, Congo was to provide 10.6 million tons of copper and 600,000 tons of cobalt.

The deal has since been scaled back to $6 billion under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, which felt Congo was taking on too much debt.

China's outbound investment totaled $67.6 billion last year — just one-sixth of America's nearly $400 billion — but it could reach $2 trillion by 2020, according to a forecast by Rhodium Group, a research firm in New York City.

As a result, Chinese companies are using a new export — jobs.

Employees at Volvo Cars worried after Chinese automaker Geely Holdings bought the money-losing Swedish brand from Ford Motor Co. in 2010. But two years later, instead of moving jobs to China, Geely has expanded Volvo's European workforce of 19,500 to about 21,500.

Majority-owned U.S. affiliates of Chinese companies support about 27,000 American jobs, up from fewer than 10,000 five years ago, according to Rhodium.

In Goodyear, Arizona, Stacey Rassas was laid off in May 2010 after a 16-year career in quality control for aerospace and aluminum manufacturers. By late autumn, she and her husband were worried they might lose their house.

She finally landed a job that December at a new factory that makes solar panels for one of the world's biggest solar manufacturers.

"It was the best day ever," she said.

Her new employer? Suntech Power Holdings Co., a Chinese company.

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McDonald reported from Beijing. AP Business Writers Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris and Jonathan Fahey and Scott Mayerowitz in New York and AP writers Michelle Faul in Johannesburg; Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm; Luis Andres Henao in Santiago, Chile; Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia; Paul Schemm in Algiers, Algeria; Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo; Troy Thibodeaux in New Orleans; and Jason Straziuso and Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya; and AP interactive producer Pailin Wedel in Bangkok contributed to this report.