Soybeans remain the largest export, but shipments of higher-value products like vehicles and airplanes are also growing.

Measured in bulk, the United States’ top exports to China last year were agricultural products, transportation equipment, computers and electronics, chemicals, and machinery, but a deeper dive into specific products reveals a lot about America’s trade relationship with China.  Most of the United States’ largest exports to China consist of crops or raw materials, but other higher-value products like vehicles and aircraft are also growing.

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The Top 10 US Exports to China

1.    Soybeans: $15 billion
2.    Civilian aircraft: $8.4 billion
3.    Cotton: $3.4 billion
4.    Copper materials: $3 billion
5.    Passenger vehicles (small engines): $3 billion
6.    Aluminum materials: $2.4 billion
7.    Passenger vehicles (large engines): $2.2 billion
8.    Electronic integrated circuits: $1.7 billion
9.    Corn: $1.3 billion
10.  Coal: $1.2 billion

Source: US Census Bureau [/box]

Soybeans remain top export to China

In 2012, the United States exported almost $109 billion worth of goods to China, up about 6.5 percent from a year earlier when exports to China broke the $100 billion mark for the first time, according to the US-China Business Council’s annual state exports report. (USCBC is the publisher of the China Business Review.) About one-fifth of US exports to China consist of agricultural products, including soybeans, which are by far the United States’ largest single export to China. US soybean exports to China totaled almost $15 billion in 2012—up $4.5 billion from a year earlier. Soybeans are used in a range of products including cooking oil and as animal feed. In addition, the United States also exports a large amount of cotton ($3.4 billion), corn ($1.3 billion), and animal hides and skins ($827 million).

China already consumes about half of the world’s pork and cotton and about one-quarter of the world’s corn, according to a report prepared by the Knowledge Exchange Division of CoBank, a Colorado-based cooperative bank. And there is room for growth: As of 2011, China’s meat consumption was only about half of that in the United States and below many other Asian countries, according to the report.

However, certain US products are still blocked in China, one of the biggest of which is beef exports. In 2003, China banned imports because of concerns over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—or mad cow disease—which broke out that year.

“Back at that time, China was not much of a beef importer,” says Joe Schuele, communications director at the US Meat Export Federation in Denver, Colo. “That issue has taken on some greater urgency lately … and we’re still shut out of that market. There is clearly a lot of demand.”

In 2010, China’s beef imports from other countries increased 85 percent from 2009, and were four times higher than total imports in 2005, according to the US Meat Export Federation. “It’s a situation that’s really overdue for resolution,” Schuele says.

China’s growing economy results in higher scrap demand

Another huge industry for US exporters is recycled scrap materials. US companies exported $9.5 billion of scrap last year, the two biggest of which were copper materials ($3 billion) and aluminum materials ($2.4 billion). Scrap includes a wide range of commodities including metals, paper, and plastics.

“As China’s economy has evolved and their industrial output has taken off, we’ve seen a voracious appetite from China for commodities demand in general, and that’s spilled over to scrap as well,” says Joe Pickard, chief economist at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington, DC. “If you take a look at all commodities together, China accounts for about 40 percent of our scrap exports in recent years.”

Some of the raw materials China needs to assemble and manufacture finished goods come from the United States. “By virtue of the fact that we’re such a developed economy here, we have a large supply of scrap on hand,” Pickard says. “As [China’s] infrastructure gets built out, they will have a bigger stock in place.”

Exports of planes and vehicles continue to grow

While a great deal of America’s exports to China consist of raw materials, the two largest high-value products US companies ship to China are civilian aircraft and passenger vehicles. Last year, US companies shipped $8.4 billion worth of planes to China and more than $5 billion worth of automobiles to China. Since 2003, exports to China of both aircraft and vehicles are up $5.6 billion, behind only soybeans.

More than half of the commercial jetliners operating in China today are Boeing airplanes. Over the next 20 years, Boeing Co. forecasts that China will need 5,260 new airplanes, worth more than $670 billion, which will make China its largest commercial airplane customer.

The top two states for exports of vehicles are South Carolina and Alabama. Together, the two states exported about $3 billion worth of vehicles to China. (Michigan ranks as the second-largest vehicle exporter if you include auto parts.) BMW has a plant in Spartanburg, SC that exclusively manufactures some of its sport-utility vehicles and crossovers.

Alabama is home to a handful of car manufacturers, but the only plant currently exporting belongs to Mercedes-Benz, which also manufacturers SUVs and crossovers, according to Hilda Lockhart, director of international trade at the Alabama Department of Commerce in Montgomery. “When Mercedes came to Alabama, they thought they would be servicing mostly the North American market,” Lockhart says. “It turns out their exports just kept going up.”

[author]Ben Baden ([email protected]) is associate editor of the China Business Review.[/author]

Posted by Ben Baden