China’s big trade surpluses hog all the headlines, but imbalances go both ways.
South Korea’s $72.2 billion surplus with the People’s Republic in fact tops a list of more than 40 nations that export more to the country than they import from it, followed by Switzerland and Australia, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Besides commodity exporters such as Iran and machinery producers like Germany, smaller economies such as Ireland, Finland and Laos round out the tally.
Imports by the world’s biggest exporter show how its humming factories prop up other economies - and for some of those, what’s on the line should they find themselves involved with territorial disputes or geopolitical tensions with one of their biggest customers.
The data itself can be skewed as a result of those tensions. The IMF and World Bank omit data from Taiwan. If included, the island would outrank all other economies except South Korea with a China surplus (including Hong Kong) of $67 billion in 2016.
In Asia, South Korea and Malaysia are among the more vulnerable to China’s economic arm-twisting, while Japan and Vietnam look relatively immune, according to Bloomberg Intelligence estimates based on their trade surpluses with China as a share of total output.
One of China’s biggest appetites is for machines and electronics from South Korea, Malaysia and Germany, according to World Bank data from 2015, the most recent year available.
Semiconductors from South Korea and Malaysia account for much of that as they’re brought in and then installed in other electronic products assembled in China’s factories.
The iPhone itself is an ecosystem that illustrates the global reach of far-flung supply chains. China’s assembly lines for the device incorporate expensive components imported from sources including Germany, Japan, South Korea, the U.S. and Taiwan.
Such complex and crucial trade relationships give South Korea something of a buffer against Chinese reprisals like those it faced last year after agreeing to install a U.S. missile defense system.
"Eighty percent of Korean exports to China are intermediate goods, and everyday people can’t see them from the outside or feel them," said Yang Pyeongseob, a senior research fellow at the Korean Institute for International Economic Policy in Beijing.
China’s factories, construction sites, vehicles soak up oil, metal and materials from commodity exporters around the world, so when the economy sneezes it spurs big swings in things like the Australian dollar or Mongolian gross domestic product.
Those two countries are key suppliers of iron ore, precious metals and coal. Meanwhile, oil from Angola, Oman, Iran, and Venezuela helps keep China’s cars and trucks running, and Turkmenistan sends natural gas. Chile offers metal, mainly copper, but wine and cherries are more familiar South American imports on Chinese supermarket shelves.
Swiss trade is driven by pharmaceuticals, chemicals and precision instruments and watches. The surplus size may have been distorted by commodities trading, which doesn’t necessarily lead to actual shipments.
South Africa’s shipments include diamonds, gold and wine. Elsewhere in the southern hemisphere, Brazil was China’s top overseas source of soybeans, soy oil, beef and sugar last year, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce. The most populous nation imported 38 million tons of soybeans alone from Brazil last year.
And farmers in New Zealand are increasingly stocking those supermarket shelves for more discerning consumers. China imported more lamb from New Zealand than anywhere else, the most wheat from Australia, and the largest amount of fruit and nuts from Chile.
— With assistance by Catherine Bosley, James Mayger, Jiyeun Lee, Siegfrid Alegado, Hannah Dormido, Chinmei Sung, Samson Ellis, and Xiaoqing Pi