China's imports will rise and its politically volatile trade surplus should shrink this year as Beijing builds up a consumer-based economy to reduce reliance on trade, the commerce minister said Monday.
The government's 2011 economic blueprint calls for nurturing self-sustaining growth by promoting consumer spending. That might help to ease tensions with Washington and other trading partners that complain about currency controls and import barriers that they say swell China's multibillion-dollar trade surplus.
Speaking at a news conference during the annual session of China's legislature, Commerce Minister Chen Deming declined to give a detailed trade forecast but said Beijing would try to streamline import procedures.
"Our foreign trade policy principle this year is 'stabilize exports, promote imports, reduce the surplus'," Chen said.
"We expect import growth to be relatively fast," he said. "The ratio of surplus to GDP should decline, though we cannot rule out the possibility there still might be a surplus."
China is the world's biggest exporter and reported a global trade surplus of $190 billion last year, down from $196 billion in 2009. Private sector analysts are forecasting a surplus this year of about $200 billion.
Chen said the government expects China to become the world's biggest consumption market over the next decade. But he said there are no plans to de-emphasize exports, which support millions of manufacturing jobs.
Chen also defended Beijing's decision to limit exports of rare earths, exotic minerals used in lightweight magnets and other high-tech products. He said the government wants to limit environmental damage, though Beijing also appears to be trying to reserve raw material for its own producers of rare earths products.
China has about 30 percent of rare earths but accounts for 97 percent of production. The United States, Canada and other countries have deposits but stopped mining them in the 1990s as lower-cost Chinese ores became available.
Chen's ministry said in December the 2011 export quota would be reduced about 10 percent from last year's level.
"I hope other countries that hold abundant rare earths reserves can explore their resources," Chen said. "We would like to work with other countries on this issue, because this resource is very limited."
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