China Displaces US As Europe’s Top Trading Partner

Reverberations from the US-China trade war may have contributed.

In 2020, China for the first time became the European Union’s top trading partner, a position previously held by the US. The milestone, the European Statistical Office revealed, was achieved during the January-September period, when the value of the EU exchanges with China totaled roughly $516.8 billion compared to $501 billion with the US.

“This result was due to an increase of imports (+4.5%) while exports remained unchanged,” according to the ESO report. “At the same time, trade with the US recorded a significant drop in both imports (-11.4%) and exports (-10.0%).”

As remarkable as the shift was, it has been a long time in the making. Europe has been China’s top trade partner since 2004, but last year the opposite was true as well, notes Rafael Leal-Arcas, professor of European and international economic law at London’s Queen Mary University.

“The numbers have been close for several years and it didn’t take much to tip the EU into the top spot,” says Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Ross Distinguished Professor at Western Washington University. 

Reverberations from the US-China trade war, along with trade tensions between the US and Europe, may have contributed.

Concerns over China’s trade practices “are shared by officials in both the Trump and incoming Biden administrations,” says Alden, “and restrictions on high-technology trade are likely to continue after Trump. China is also looking to reduce its export dependence on the US by focusing more on internal growth.” Against that backdrop, trade relations between China and the EU have thrived, and various agreements and discussions to firm up these connections are already in the pipeline.