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Strong US economy foils Chinese efforts to narrow trade gap

Surplus hits record as consumption-driven exports outweigh increased imports

A ship belonging to China Shipping Container Lines at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, California   © AP

BEIJING -- China's goods trade surplus with the U.S. swelled to an all-time high last year despite Beijing taking steps to rein it in, potentially further inflaming a tense economic relationship.

The surplus climbed 10% to $275.8 billion, topping the $260 billion record set in 2015, Chinese government data released Friday shows. The gap has ballooned 10-fold since 2001, the year China joined the World Trade Organization, and now accounts for 65% of China's total goods trade surplus.

With U.S. President Donald Trump railing against the imbalance, China strove to whittle it down by sharply ramping up its intake of American goods, particularly mineral and other resources. Between January and November, imports of American oil surged 14-fold, natural gas 21-fold and coal 3,600-fold.

Shipments of soybeans -- China's top import from the U.S. -- climbed about 10%. Beijing also lifted in June a ban on American beef imposed after an outbreak of mad cow disease. All told, Chinese imports of U.S. goods grew 15%, the first rise in three years.

But these efforts were outweighed by a continued rise in exports as a healthy American economy encouraged consumers to open their wallets. Chinese electronics exports to the U.S. rose 14% in the 11 months through November, while shipments of toys jumped 27%.

Though exports grew more slowly than imports in percentage terms, at 12%, the much higher starting level for exports meant that the gap widened regardless.

Foreign companies operating in China account for about 60% of the country's surplus, according to the Ministry of Commerce. This also plays a role in the U.S. imbalance, as such companies as Apple ship components to China for assembly into finished products -- iPhones, for example -- that are then sent back to America.

China's trade surplus with the U.S. is rooted in the countries' differing economic structures and industrial competitiveness as well as the international division of labor, Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng has said. For China to narrow the gap on its own is no easy task.

The Trump administration turned up the heat on trade after the president's meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in November. The U.S. Department of Commerce launched an investigation late that month into whether to levy anti-dumping duties on aluminum sheet from China. Washington is also weighing high tariffs or import restrictions on such products as steel and solar panels.

The pressure extends beyond trade. Wireless carrier AT&T recently walked away from talks on selling smartphones from Huawei Technologies in the U.S., while an American government panel has effectively blocked the planned acquisition of MoneyGram by Alibaba Group Holding unit Ant Financial.

China has taken pains to fend off criticism on trade, including cutting tariffs on consumer goods last month and announcing its first international import expo, scheduled for November. But it may take a tougher approach as well. Reports that the government may scale back or halt purchases of U.S. Treasurys have been interpreted as a warning to Washington.

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