BEIJING — Already the biggest auto market and steel producer, China edged past Germany in 2009 to become the top exporter, China's customs agency said Sunday, yet another sign of its rapid rise and the spread of economic power from West to East.
Total 2009 exports were more than $1.2 trillion, the customs agency said. That was ahead of the $1.17 trillion forecast for Germany by its foreign trade organization, BGA.
China overtook Germany in 2007 as the world's third-largest economy and is expected to unseat Japan as No. 2 behind the United States as early as this year. Its trade boom has helped Beijing pile up the world's biggest foreign currency reserves at more than $2 trillion.
"This is just one more step by China in attaining economic size commensurate with its population," said Arthur Kroeber, managing director of Dragonomics, an economic research firm in Beijing. Germany has a population of about 80 million, while China's population is about 1.3 billion.
"The next big news will be when China surpasses Japan to become the world's second-biggest economy," Kroeber said.
The communist country's continued rise as an export powerhouse has strained relations with the United States, where many companies and labor unions have asked the government to impose import duties on tires, steel pipe and other goods from China.
The Obama administration, like George W. Bush's, has urged China to increase the value of its currency, the yuan, which has helped make its exports cheaper than those from many nations. But Premier Wen Jiabao said in December that China would "absolutely not yield" to calls for an exchange-rate adjustment.
China's new status at the top exporter highlights its growing presence as an industrial power; major buyer of oil, iron ore and other commodities; and, increasingly, as an investor and key voice in managing the global economy.
Its ability to unseat longtime export leader Germany reflects the ability of agile, low-cost Chinese manufacturers to keep selling abroad even as other exporters have been hammered by a slump in global demand.
The global crisis speeded China's rise up the ranks, as a $586 billion government stimulus kept its economy and consumption growing while the United States and other markets struggled with recession. Chinese economic growth rose to 8.9 percent in the third quarter of 2009 and the government is forecasting a full-year expansion of 8.3 percent.
On Friday, data released by an industry group showed China topped the slumping United States in auto sales in 2009 — a status industry analysts a few years ago did not expect it to achieve until as late as 2020.
Economists and Germany's national chamber of commerce said earlier the country was likely to lose its longtime crown as top exporter.
China's exports per person are still much lower than those of Germany. China sells low-tech goods such as shoes, toys and furniture, while Germany exports machinery and other higher-value products. German commentators note their country supplies the factory equipment used by top Chinese manufacturers.
"If China grows, this pushes the world's economy — and that's good for export-oriented Germany as well," an economist for the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Volker Treier, said last month.
Of course, with 1.3 billion people, China is still one of the world's poorest countries. It ranked 130th among economies in per capita income in 2008, according to the World Bank.
China's trade ended 2009 with exports rebounding in December, jumping 17.7 percent after 13 months of declines, the customs agency said. The upturn was an "important turning point" for exporters, a customs agency economist, Huang Guohua, said on state television, CCTV.
The United States and other nations complain that part of China's export success is based on currency controls and improper subsidies to its exporters.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.