Top exports from the US to China include grains and scrap metal.

What America’s Top Exports To China Say About The $300 Billion Trade Deficit

Left photo courtesy of United Soybean Board, right photo courtesy of Don DeBold, both via Flickr. This article was originally published on March 6, 2014.

It’s no secret that the U.S. has a large trade deficit with China, importing far more than it exports. More surprisingly, perhaps, are top exports between the countries.

In 2013, the U.S. imported a record $440 billion worth of goods from China, the world’s second biggest economy, while it only exported $122 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service (pdf).

Here are the top exports and imports of each country also courtesy of (pdf) the CRS.

Top exports from the US to China:


Chart by Curiousmatic.

In 2011, many were shocked to see that waste and scrap won out as the #1 U.S. export to China, beating out all manufactured and processed goods.

However, over the last two years, oilseeds (such as soybeans) and grains have surged to their top spot by over $5 billion, in part because of a government price support program in China that inadvertently raise the price of domestic corn, wheat, soybeans and rice.

Waste and scrap also declined, in part because of China’s 2013 “Green Fence” ban on plastic imports.

An increasingly wealthy middle class, meanwhile, accounts for growth in other areas: 2013 was a record year in Chinese aircraft sales – Boeing alone sold 143 aircraft, 22% of their global total – while automobile sales have increased sevenfold since 2009.

Not shown on this list is #6, semiconductor sales, which once was the U.S.’ third largest export to China but has declined due to expanding technological manufacturing capabilities in China.

Top exports from China to the U.S.


Chart by Curiousmatic.

What most people perhaps associate with Chinese imports, the “Made in China” manufactured commodities such as toys and clothes are only third and fourth on the list, counting for about 13.5% of total imports combined.

More and more high-tech devices are being imported, however, such as computers, semiconductors and communications equipment (TV, telephone, radio and wireless). Exports of the latter more than doubled in the last 5 years.

Some, like the Great Lakes Trade Adjustment Assistance Center, say this shows how unhealthy the U.S.-China trade relationship is, with the world’s largest economy by far (the U.S.’ $16 trillion GDP versus China’s $8 trillion) exporting large amounts of raw materials in return for finished goods.

The Congressional Research Service points (pdf) out that this is a natural progression, since a lot of production facilities have moved to China in the last few decades, making it an important center for global supply chains.

Despite the $318 billion trade imbalance, the trade relationship is “overall beneficial,” the papers states (pdf).

An argument can also be made that the U.S. has a more diversified base of goods to sell: China’s top five export categories to the U.S. make up 40% of total exports,  three of which are closely aligned.

The top five U.S. export categories, however, only made up 20% – making U.S. trade with China, potentially at least, less susceptible to shifting commodity prices.

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Ole Skaar