Two decades ago, China's gross exports were on par with the Netherlands, and only North Korea relied on the world's most populous country as its primary source of imports. Now, China exports far more than any country on earth, and is the top supplier of countries in every corner of the world.

Here's a snapshot of China's transformation into a manufacturing powerhouse.

Expand chart
The Observatory of Economic Complexity; Map: Chris Canipe / Axios
Key takeaways
  • China exported $2.06 trillion worth of products in 2016, nearly 10 times its export output from 1996, per MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity. That's less than the $2.26 trillion the entire European Union exported, but considerably more than the $1.42 trillion from the United States.
  • China gained ground in Eastern Europe, where Russia was once dominant, and South America, where the U.S. led in exports. But the U.S. is still a leading exporter in many of these countries, often taking the second or third spot.
  • "The death of distance" due to globalization has allowed China to become the lead exporter in African and Middle Eastern nations that used to trade primarily with their neighbors.
  • The U.S. manufactures more high-end goods, such as satellites and aircrafts, than China. And China's edge over the U.S. in exporting to poorer nations can be explained in part by the lack of demand for such goods.
An expanding pie
  • Every single year before China was allowed into the World Trade Organization in 2001, Congress had the option to reassess the U.S.'s trade relationship with China and raise tariffs. Membership in the WTO entitled China to the stable tariff rate enjoyed by other members and reduced uncertainty for companies wanting to offshore production to China, Mark Wu, a professor of international trade law at Harvard, tells Axios.
  • China's rise hasn't come at the U.S.'s economic expense, Scott Lincicome, a trade policy expert at the Cato Institute, says. "We like to think of global trade as an expanding pie. Your share might decline relative to other countries, but that's fine as long as your domestic indicators are doing better than they were last year." And various U.S. economic figures, such as industrial output and exports, were at or near record highs in 2017.
  • But relative global power is a zero-sum game, Wu says. Even though the U.S. is growing alongside China, the younger power's newfound influence will impact the U.S. role on the international stage.
  • "The U.S. will find it more difficult to throw its weight around," Lincicome says. China presents developing nations with an option besides the U.S. for importing and exporting goods. And China, in turn, is servicing high-growth areas in the Middle East and Asia.
What the map doesn't show
  • It accounts for goods exports but excludes the export of services and intangibles such as intellectual property, where the U.S. has an edge over other countries.
  • The data also marks the exporting country as the one where the last step of production on a given good was completed. For example, a smartphone might be produced with U.S. capital and U.S. intellectual property but be marked as a Chinese export if it was produced with Chinese labor — even if its production and sale eventually yielded U.S. profits.

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