When you think of China, images of R95 face masks, deserted streets and makeshift hospitals no doubt come to mind. But coronavirus notwithstanding, the dominant reality of contemporary China is its formidable economic footprint on the global economy — and its legendary trade surplus, in particular.
We all know that China’s economic success depends on running gigantic trade surpluses. Well, not any more. China’s surplus has been small relative to the size of its economy for a decade and has been approaching zero in the past few years. Indeed, a November 2019 working paper from the International Monetary Fund predicted that China would begin to run a small current account trade deficit in coming years.
Here I’ll explain why China’s trade surpluses mushroomed in size from 2001 to 2007, but then quickly slipped back to pre- 2001 levels. The chronology offers some insight into the fundamental drivers of trade balances (in China or any other economy) and why China’s trade balance is now headed toward deficit. I’ll also opine on what this shift is likely to mean for the ongoing U.S.- China trade war — and for the world economy.