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China Hikes Iron Ore, Copper Imports Amid Car Building Boom

In the somewhat gloomy December and annual China trade statistics released in the second week of January was buried a piece of data that hearkened back to the boom years of Chinese commodity consumption: China is buying a lot more iron ore and copper.

In December, China boosted iron ore imports 11.1% year-on-year to 100.9 million tons, worth $12.4 billion. Copper imports rose 18.2% to 2.5 million tons, worth $5.3 billon. These confirmed ongoing trends. For all of 2023, iron ore imports rose 6.6% to 1.2 billion tons, worth $134 billion. For the year, copper purchases rose 9.1% to 27.5 million tons, worth $60.1 billion.

But the reasons for the big increase is no longer buildings and highways of a society punching its way into to global prosperity as it was in the early 2000s. Instead, these rising industrial commodity purchases are underpinned by China’s booming automobile and shipbuilding industries. Car exports rose 52% year-on-year in December to $8.9 billion. China, in fact, is set to pass Japan this year as the world’s number one auto exporter. Exports of ships, a related industry, increased 28.6% to $3.2 billion. 

The headline numbers were less bullish, but perhaps not as bad as many feared, for China and the global economy. Total exports rose only 2.3% in December to $303.6 billion from $296.9 billion a year ago. For the year, exports dropped 4.6% to $3.4 trillion, a decline Chinese officials attributed to a faltering global economy. “The global economic recovery has been weak in the past year,” Lyu Daliang, a government spokesperson. “Sluggish external demand has hit China’s exports. Exports to the U.S. dropped 4.8% to $42.2 billion. Exports to ASEAN countries improved 0.4% to $50.2 billion. Exports to the EU dropped 1% to $42.8 billon. 

Among the bright spots in partner countries, Chinese exports to India increased 8.5% to $10.5 billion, shipment to Russia increased 22.5% to $10.7 billion, and sales to Africa increased 9.5% to $15.3 billion. 

There was a recovery in high-tech trade, driven by more demand for semiconductors and digital equipment. The work from home economy driven by the Covid-19 pandemic has subsided some, but it’s caused enough structural changes to undergird a new tech economy. For December, shipments of high-tech products increased 0.5% year-on-year to $77 billion, suggesting that the sector might be turning a corner after a dismal year. For all of 2023, high-tech exports dropped 10.8% year-on-year to $842.5 billion.

Industrial commodities dented exports more than high-tech trade. China shrank exports of petroleum products 39.8% to 4.7 million tons. By value, they decreased 42.7% to $3.7 billion. Exports of fertilizers fell 26.8% to $707 million. Exports of steel products rose 45.4% to 7.7 million tons but they were sold at a discount. By value, they declined 8.7% to $6.4 million.

The increases in copper and iron ore purchases were among outliers in Chinese imports. Total imports increased 0.2% to $228.3 billion from $227.9 billion. For the year, imports declined 5.5% to $2.6 trillion. China increased imports from the EU 0.4% to $24 billon. Imports from the U.S. dropped 4.3% to $14.9 billon. Imports from ASEAN countries fell 2.4% to $35.7 billion. There were a few bright spots among trading partners. Imports from India rose 24.1% to $1.5 billion. Imports from Russia increased 23.1% to $11.2 billion. Imports from Africa rose 4.3% to $8.8 billion. 

And China’s appetite for coal, driven largely by demand from new power plants generating power for cities and a new generation of electric vehicles, showed no signs of abating. China increased coal imports 53% to 47.3 million tons, and by value 22.8% to $5.2 billion. For the year, China hiked purchases of the black rock 61.8% to 474.4 million tons, worth $53 billions.

John W. Miller