The surge is happening without much change in Chinese government policies and without much specific help from the Obama administration, which has a stated goal of doubling all U.S. exports globally by 2014. Instead, experts say, the main reason for the increase has been a booming China, where wealthier tastes include an increased appetite for meat — and hence for soybeans used as livestock feed.
In almost every U.S. state and congressional district, exports to China have grown exponentially. Whether it’s pecan farmers in Georgia, plastics producers in Virginia, airplane makers in Washington state or scrap-metal dealers in places as diverse as Texas and New York — all have seen a boom in exports to China.
But as impressive as the U.S. export figures look, businesspeople and economists say that the number could be higher and that it would grow even more if China lowered its Great Wall of protectionist barriers.
“The China market should probably be even bigger than it is,” said John Frisbie, president of the Washington-based U.S.-China Business Council. “It is absolutely right to make sure Americans understand that China’s market is fairly open to U.S. goods and services, but at the same time, be clear that there are many market access barriers that make the market less than it should be.”
The boom in U.S. exports is not helping erase America’s trade deficit with China, which was $295 billion in 2011, $22 billion higher than the year before. But American exports to China have increased by 468 percent since 2001, when the country joined the World Trade Organization, and are up by nearly 50 percent since 2008.
American business leaders applaud the Obama administration for putting the spotlight on exports during meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao last year and with Vice President Xi Jinping during his visit to Washington last month. But they say there has been little, if any, change in the Chinese government’s trade policies, licensing laws and investment rules — which, according to American policymakers and businesspeople, restrict China’s markets in some areas and keep the playing field uneven. The Chinese currency is undervalued by as much as 30 percent, U.S. officials have said.
So what, precisely, is going on? And what is driving the surge?
The top export last year was food, reflecting China’s insatiable demand for soybeans, which are used here for livestock and poultry feed — and are cheaper than importing feed grain.
“China imported more soybeans from the U.S. because people’s living standard has improved and they need more nutritious food,” said Zheng Fengtian, a professor of agriculture and rural development at Beijing’s Renmin University. Importing soybeans “satisfies people’s needs for meat, eggs and milk,” he said.