China-US Trade: Some Patterns Since 1990

In US-based conversations about China-US trade, it sometimes seems to me that the working assumption is that China's economy is heavily dependent on trade with the United States--which in turn would give the US government strong leverage in trade disputes. How true is that assumption? Here's some baseline evidence from the DHL Global Connectedness Index 2020: The State of Globalization in a Distancing World, by Stephen A. Altman and Phillip Bastian (December 2020). 

These first two figures show China-US trade in perspective to China: the top panel shows it relative to China's GDP, and the bottom panel shows it relative to China's total trade flows. Bottom line is that while China's exports to the US were as high as 7% of China's GDP back in 2007, after the big surge in China's exports to the entire world that followed China joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, but in the last few years or so Chinese exports to the US are less than 4% of China's GDP and were falling even before President Trump set of the trade war. 

China's exports to the US as a share of China's total exports went up considerably in the 1990s. But in the last decade or so, China's exports to the US were typically about 18-20% of China's total exports, before dropping lower in the trade war.

What about if we do the same calculations about US-China trade, but this time looking at the size of the flows relative to the US economy? The next figure shows how US imports from China as a share of US GDP: typically about 2.4-2.8% of US GDP in the last decade, before dropping lower in the trade war. 

The next panel shows that US imports from China have risen as a share of total US trade to about 21% of total US trade in the years before the pandemic--and seems to have rebounded back to that level after a short drop in the trade war. 

Altman and Bastian describe some other patterns of US-China economic interactions as well: 

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