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Trade

China's import surge exposes dependence on pricey overseas resources

April imports jumped 43% in dollars, even as iron ore and soy volumes stayed roughly flat

A tanker docks at the Port of Qingdao in China. Crude prices have more than doubled from a year ago, boosting Chinese imports by value.   © Reuters

BEIJING/NEW YORK -- China's imports grew by their fastest pace in more than 10 years by value in April, fueled by the nation's economic recovery from the pandemic as well as the rising global commodities prices.

Imports increased 43% on the year in dollar terms, the General Administration of Customs announced Friday.

"The recession in early 2020 distorts the year-to-year comparison," Brookings Institution senior fellow David Dollar said. Compared with 2019, total imports through April were up a "healthy but not extraordinary" 24%, he pointed out.

"I take the price increases as a positive sign that the world economy is recovering well, though unevenly," said Dollar, who characterized the new numbers as reflecting China's "solid growth."

But as imports of natural resources and food grow more costly, there is concern that they could drag on corporate earnings and consumer spending.

The surge in commodities prices was a key factor behind April's jump. West Texas Intermediate crude oil futures now trade around $65 a barrel, more than double the levels from a year ago. The value of China's crude imports rose roughly 70% on the year in April while volume remained largely flat.

Imports in the "iron ores and concentrates" category and of soybeans increased around 90% and 50% in value terms, despite rising only 3% and 11% by volume. Soybeans were a key topic during the negotiations for the "phase one" trade deal signed by China and the U.S. in 2020. China imports about 60% of its iron ore from Australia.

By country of origin, import values from Australia and the U.S. -- both major commodity exporters -- jumped around 50%.

"The percentage increase in U.S. imports continues to outpace global imports, partially due to rising commodity prices, but also suggests China is continuing to implement its purchasing commitments under the U.S.-China phase one deal," said Wendy Cutler, a former U.S. trade official who is now a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Sino-Australian trade relations have deteriorated rapidly in recent months, with China announcing this week the suspension of their economic dialogue. Beijing has been applying pressure to Canberra over political issues including the latter's support for an independent probe into the origins of COVID-19 by slapping heavy tariffs on such Australian exports as barley.

But iron ore has been spared China's tariffs so far, thanks to the country's high demand, and rising prices of the raw material have blunted its economic pressure on Australia.

As the Chinese economy recovers from a coronavirus-induced chill, overseas purchases of production equipment and components have also risen. Imports of integrated circuits rose more than 20% by both value and volume. Though the U.S. has essentially barred shipments of cutting-edge chips to Huawei Technologies, many industry watchers say China has been snapping up other semiconductors.

Chinese imports of machine tools climbed 28%.

Imports in the "motor vehicles and chassis" category more than tripled, while imports of cosmetics and toiletries rose 30% or so. The boost in consumer goods is driven partly by wealthy consumers unable to travel because of COVID-19 restrictions.

April marked the sharpest year-on-year monthly rise in China's import value since January 2011. The country's gross domestic product at that time was growing at a double-digit clip, thanks largely to a 4 trillion yuan ($618 billion at current rates) stimulus package launched in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

But the latest boom does not fully parallel the one in 2011. Nominal disposable income per capita grew 3.5% in Chinese cities in 2020 -- far below the 14% logged in 2011. Even the pre-pandemic figure of less than 8% fell significantly short of 2011's.

Consumers and downstream companies could suffer should businesses decide to pass on the rising costs of imports. Companies that target households as opposed to corporate clients stand to suffer in particular.

China's exports increased 32% on the year in dollar terms in April, leading to a 5% decrease in the trade surplus.

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