China to overtake U.S. as world's top trader

January 10, 2014: 6:06 AM ET
china trade
Shipping crates wait to be loaded in a Chinese port.
HONG KONG (CNNMoney)

China is poised to become the world's top trading nation, a position long held by the United States.

China reported Friday that its total trade for 2013 reached $4.2 trillion, a sharp increase over the previous year. It is the first time the world's most populous country has cleared the $4 trillion barrier, a feat accomplished despite lackluster numbers for the final month of the year.

The U.S. has not yet reported trade numbers for December, but China is virtually assured the top ranking.

In the first 11 months of the year, U.S. imports and exports totaled $3.5 trillion, according to the Department of Commerce. To retain the top spot, the U.S. would have to more than double its average monthly performance in December.

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"This is a milestone for the development of our national trading services," Zheng Yuesheng, a Chinese Customs Administration official, said at a press conference.

Just how big an edge China might have is difficult to establish. China's trade data is notoriously unreliable, skewed by fake invoices filed to evade capital controls.

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China's growing trade prowess has been fueled by economic growth of around 10% a year in the past three decades. Sustained progress has propelled the country up the list of biggest economies, generated wealth for its growing middle class and boosted global trade.

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The country, once known for its production of textiles and light industrial products, has now made the switch to sophisticated products including the latest tech gadgets.

Along the way, bilateral trade with the U.S. has grown to the point of mutual dependence. The U.S. now does almost as much trade with China as Canada.

Total trade isn't the only area Beijing has come to dominate. China overtook the U.S. as the biggest importer of oil late last year, amid rising demand for fossil fuels.

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