China’s changing trade dynamics

On 7th April 2008 New Zealand became the first OECD country to sign a free trade deal with China, an economy which in the 1970’s was one of the poorest countries in the global economy. Today China is the world’s second largest economy and the fastest growing at a rate around 7% per year. However China’s trade composition has changed significantly over the years as its economy has developed. Two main trends stand out.

The decline in importance of primary goods (mainly food) as a proportion of China’s total commodity trade.  China’s exports have changed from being dominated by labour-intensive manufactured products in the mid 1990’s to more sophisticated manufactures today. 1994 – 40.6% of exports were miscellaneous manufactured articles. 2014 45.8% of exports were machinery and transport equipment.

A changing comparative advantage

A country’s comparative advantage refers its production of a good or service at a lower opportunity cost than another. Instead of every country trying to produce a wide of goods , countries can grow faster by specializing in the goods they can produce most cheaply and trading for others. Many Asian countries – Japan, Korea, Taiwan – have gone through 4 stages (as shown below) of development through a specialization index. It shows the first stage is the Developing Country stage, where Primary commodities are more competitive than both Other manufactures and Machinery. The second and third stages are the young and mature NIEs (newly industrialised economies) respectively, where for both stages Other manufactures is the most competitive sector, but the ranking of Other manufactures vis-à-vis Machinery is opposite. At the fourth stage – the pinnacle of trade structures – Machinery is most competitive.

Stages of Development.png

*NIE = Newly Industrialised Economy

A country’s trade structure can be classified into any of these 4 stages according to the relative magnitudes of the country’s specialisation indices across 3 sectors:

Three Sectors - China Trade.png

The figure below illustrates the evolution of China’s trade structure during 1984-2014. It can be seen that China became a young NIE in 1990 – when the specialisation index of Other manufactures surpassed that of Primary commodities – and then a mature NIE in 1999 – when Machinery passed Primary commodities. This pattern is consistent with the changing composition of China’s exports, from labour-intensive products to a more sophisticated mix led by various types of machinery and equipment.

China change in specialisation.pngImplications for the global economy
China’s rapid rise poses both challenges and opportunities for other countries as they are exposed to increased competition at home and abroad. For many firms in rich countries, intensifying competition from China’s exports has reduced demand for the goods they produce, with a corresponding decline in workers employed. Such changes in the global economic environment affect the allocation of factors of production and cause sectoral productivity fluctuations, as well as driving changes in comparative advantages among nations. Trade between developing (e.g. China) and developed economies (e.g. US) has been on the rise. Developed countries with high wages and expensive welfare programmes are having trouble coping with the effects of developing countries becoming major global players. It is estimated that 2.0-2.4 million people in the US lost their jobs as a result of increasing Chinese import competition during 1999-2011.

Source: China’s changing comparative advantage: Trends and implications by Murat Ungor. EcoNZ@Otago – August 2016


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