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China demand for bananas to cotton drives Asia export rebound

[HONG KONG] Philippine bananas, Indian cotton and New Zealand lamb have at least one thing in common. They're all objects of resurgent Chinese demand.

As Donald Trump prepares to go head to head with Xi Jinping on trade, China's consumer power is kicking Asia's export engine into gear, moving the world's fastest-growing economies.

Shipments to China from around the region have risen sharply in both value and volume, ending what economists at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd described as Asia's two-year trade recession.

Higher commodity prices are lifting export values for countries like Indonesia and Malaysia while rising oil prices have boosted Singapore and India. The planned launches of Samsung Electronics Co's new Galaxy S8 and Apple Inc's iPhone 8 are fuelling demand for semiconductors and other components made in South Korea and Taiwan.

"Asian exports have staged a significant rebound," said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight in Singapore.

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Upward Trend

In Japan, exports are underpinning a modest economic recovery, with shipments to China, its biggest customer, jumping 28 percent in February, helping total exports rise the most in two years. South Korean exports rose the most in five years during the same month, thanks to accelerating shipments to China, which jumped by nearly a third from a year earlier.

Indian exports to China rose by nearly half in December from a year earlier, driven by shipments of cotton, ores and zinc. The figure compares with a 5 per cent drop in overall Indian exports, and pares the 7.7 per cent decline in Indian exports to China for the full year.

"Non-oil exports from India have really perked up over the last six months," Arvind Subramanian, India's chief economic adviser, told Bloomberg Television in an interview.

"It's a steady upward trend."

New Zealand's shipments to China grew 12 per cent in the three months to February, driven by demand for beef, lamb and milk powder, according to ANZ. There's more to come. New Zealand wants to upgrade an existing trade deal with China and neighbouring Australia has signed a beef-export pact with China.

In South-east Asia, Thailand and Malaysia's exports to China in January rose by nearly a third from a year earlier. Indonesian exports to China jumped almost 44 per cent in February from a year earlier while Singapore's soared 65 per cent the same month.

"China has more than doubled their imports of bananas in the last few months so, we're OK," Philippine Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said in an interview.

Risks Ahead

To be sure, the sustainability of the export recovery is far from assured. Though volumes are up, much of the rebound reflects higher commodity prices and seasonal effects can provide a gloss to overall numbers. Beijing is faced with a challenge as it tries to rein in excessive debt and leverage while shifting the economy away from a reliance on stimulus.

"You should expect China to slow this year," said Mark McFarland, chief economist for Asia at Union Bancaire Privee in Hong Kong.

Then there's Mr Trump. While he's toned down threats of dramatic trade action against China, his administration appears committed to shrinking a yawning trade deficit through tariffs on the country's goods or other punitive measures.

Heightened trade tensions between the two largest economies would spill over to the rest of Asia given the region's tightly knit supply chain and the US position as by far the worlds' largest consumer market.

"We're a little worried about the US," Mr Dominguez said.

"We're not sure where they're going."

A reluctance among companies to invest, excess capacity, and rising levels of debt also limit the prospects for a full-blown, export-driven recovery.

Still, firming demand in East Asia is consistent with global trade volume growth of more than 5 per cent on year in February, the fastest pace since 2011, according to Capital Economics.

The China-driven rebound in exports is part of the reason Asia's expansion will probably exceed 5 per cent in 2017 and 2018, compared with about 3.5 per cent for the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.

China's weight as a consumer is also being felt in Papua New Guinea, the resource-rich Pacific island nation. Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said exports are improving. 

"Asia is still the engine room of global growth," Mr O'Neill said in an interview.

"I'm very positive."


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