In a historic shift that hadn’t occurred in over two decades, Mexico has overtaken China as the primary source of goods imported by the United States. This transformation underscores the escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing, coupled with the U.S.’s strategic move to engage in trade with countries deemed friendlier and geographically closer.
As of 2021, the 30 largest trade partners of the United States constituted 87.9 percent of U.S. exports and 87.4 percent of U.S. imports. Data released by the U.S. Department of Commerce reveals a notable upheaval in global trade, with a staggering $130 billion shift between China and Mexico. Trade with Mexican goods witnessed an upswing of nearly $21 billion, while Chinese merchandise experienced a significant decline of $119 billion.
To put this into perspective, China’s export decline in the previous year was roughly equivalent to the combined total of U.S. imports from India and Brazil. Imports to the U.S. from South and Central America showed a more modest decrease of nearly 6%, outperforming the Middle East’s 17.4% drop and the Pacific Rim’s 11.7% decline, primarily driven by China’s substantial 20.3% reduction in exports to the U.S.
This overall downturn in U.S. imports marks the first major drop since the pandemic-induced declines witnessed in 2020.
The economic conflict between China and the United States traces back to January 2018, when then-U.S. President Donald Trump initiated tariffs and other trade barriers against China. The aim was to compel China to address what the U.S. labeled as longstanding unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft. The Trump administration asserted that these practices contributed to the U.S.–China trade deficit, accusing the Chinese government of requiring the transfer of American technology to China.
In response to U.S. trade measures, the Chinese government accused the Trump administration of practicing nationalist protectionism and took retaliatory action. Despite a phase one agreement reached in January 2020, tensions persisted, leading to the expiration of the agreement in December 2021. China fell significantly short of its targets for U.S. imports by the end of the Trump presidency, resulting in the trade war being widely viewed as a failure for the United States.
While President Joe Biden maintained the tariffs, speculation arose in early 2024 about a potential 60 percent tariff on Chinese goods, as the economic conflict endured.
China, as the world’s largest manufacturing economy and exporter of goods, holds a critical position in global trade. As of 2023, China and the United States are the first and second-largest economies by nominal GDP, accounting for a substantial portion of the global economy. The dynamics of this economic relationship continue to shape the landscape of international trade and influence the trajectory of the global economy.