China overtook Germany as the world's top exporter after December exports jumped 17.7 percent for their first increase in 14 months, data showed Sunday, in another sign of China's rise as a global economic force.
Exports for the last month of 2009 were $130.7 billion, data from the General Administration of Customs showed. That raised total 2009 exports to $1.2 trillion, ahead of the 816 billion euros ($1.17 trillion) for Germany forecast by its foreign trade organization, BGA.
China's new status is largely symbolic but reflects the ability of its resilient, low-cost manufacturers to keep selling abroad despite a slump in global consumer demand due to the financial crisis.
December's rebound was an "important turning point" for exporters, a customs agency economist, Huang Guohua, said on state television, CCTV.
"We can say that China's export enterprises have completely emerged from their all-time low in exports," Huang said.
Stronger foreign sales of Chinese goods could help to drive the country's recovery after demand plunged in 2008, forcing thousands of factories to close and throwing millions of laborers out of work.
Boosted by a 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus, China's economic expansion accelerated to 8.9 percent for the third quarter of 2009 and the government says full-year growth should be 8.3 percent.
Economists and Germany's national chamber of commerce said earlier the country was likely to lose its longtime crown as top exporter.
German economist Volker Treier predicted recently that Germany was set to lose the "world export championship" because of China's bigger size and higher population.
"By 2010, this title will be history, because the Chinese will simply outdo us due to their bigness," Treier told the German news agency DAPD.
He said it may not be a bad thing, either, "because if China grows, this pushes the world's economy — and that's good for export-oriented Germany as well."
China is best known as a supplier of shoes, toys, furniture and other low-tech goods, while Germany exports machinery and other higher-value products. German commentators note that their country supplies the factory equipment used by top Chinese manufacturers.
China surpassed the United States as the biggest auto market in 2009 and is on track to replace Japan as the world's second-largest economy soon. China passed Germany as the third-largest economy in 2007.
China's trade surplus shrank by 34.2 percent in 2009 to $196.07 billion, the customs agency said. That reflected China's stronger demand for imported raw materials and consumer goods while the United States and other economies are struggling and demand is weak.
The United States and other governments complain that part of China's export success is based on currency controls and improper subsidies that give its exporters an unfair advantage against foreign rivals.
Washington has imposed anti-dumping duties on imports of Chinese-made steel pipes and some other goods, while the European Union has imposed curbs on Chinese shoes.
The U.S. and other governments also complain that Beijing keeps its currency, the yuan, undervalued. Beijing broke the yuan's link to the dollar in 2005 and it rose gradually until late 2008, but has been frozen since then against the U.S. currency in what economists say is an effort by Beijing to keep its exporters competitive.
The dollar's weakness against the euro and some other currencies pulls down the yuan in markets that use them and makes Chinese goods even more attractive there, adding to China's trade surplus.
Even though China overtook Germany as top exporter, the customs agency said total 2009 Chinese trade fell 13.9 percent from 2008.
Commodities were among China's key imports, the agency said, with the country bringing in 630 million tons of iron ore last year, up 41.6 percent from the previous year, and 200 million tons of crude oil, an increase of 13.9 percent, as prices for both commodities fell.
Economists say China has been rushing to build up stockpiles at bargain prices since crude oil and other commodity prices plunged in 2008. That motive, more than a revival in actual industrial demand, has driven its recent import boom of oil, copper and other metals.
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