China-EU - international trade in goods statistics - Statistics Explained

China-EU - international trade in goods statistics

Data extracted in March 2018.

Planned article update: April 2019.


Among the EU's trading partners, China was the largest partner for EU imports, and the second largest partner for EU exports in 2017.

Among EU Member States, the Netherlands was the largest importer from China in 2017 and Germany the largest exporter to China.

Imports, exports and trade balance between the EU and China, 2008-2017

This article provides a picture of the international trade in goods between the European Union (EU) and China. It analyses the type of goods exchanged between the two economies and the shares of each EU Member State in those exchanges. In this article all figures relate to China excluding Hong Kong. It should be noted that Hong Kong itself is the fifth largest importer and exporter in the world.

This article is part of an online publication providing recent statistics on international trade in goods, covering information on the EU's main partners, main products traded, specific characteristics of trade as well as background information.

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  • In 2016, China was the largest exporter of goods in the world with a share of 17 % of world exports and the third largest importer with a share of 12 % of world imports.
  • Among the EU's trading partners, China was the largest partner for EU imports, and the second largest partner for EU exports in 2017.
  • EU trade balance with China continues to be in deficit, peaking at 180 EUR billion in 2015 before dropping to 176 billion in 2017.
  • Manufactured goods dominate both the exports of goods from the EU to China and imports from China to the EU, accounting for 85 % of the total exports and 97 % of total imports.
  • Among EU Member States, the Netherlands is the largest importer (EUR 83 billion) from China while Germany is the largest exporter (EUR 87 billion) to China
  • The largest trade deficit with China is held by the Netherlands (EUR 71 billion) while Germany has the largest trade surplus (EUR 15 billion)

EU and China in world trade in goods

Figure 1 shows that the five largest exporters account for almost half of world exports. The largest is China (17 %) followed by the EU (16 %), the United States (12 %), Japan (5 %) and Hong Kong (4 %). The same five also account for almost half of world imports but in different order. Here China is third with 12 % and is preceded by the United States (18 %) and the EU (15 %), while Japan (5 %) and Hong Kong (4 %) complete the top 5.

Figure 1: The position of China among the world's largest traders, 2016
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_introle)

Figure 2 focuses on the evolution of trade in the EU and China over the period 2007-2016. China's exports grew more rapidly than those of the EU especially between 2009 and 2015 when they peaked at 130 % over the 2007 level. Growth of China's imports is very close to the growth of its exports and considerably larger than growth of EU imports. The cover ratio (exports divided by imports ) for China was 128 % in 2007, indicating a substantial trade in goods surplus. The ratio dropped to 109 % in 2011 but then started growing, reaching a peak of 135 % in 2015 before falling to 132 % in 2016.

Figure 2: Evolution of trade of the EU-28 and China (2007 = 100) and cover ratio (%), 2007-2016
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_introle)

EU deficit with China remains substantial

Figure 3 shows that in 2017, China had a share of 11 % in extra-EU exports (EUR 198 billion) making it the second largest partner behind the United States (20 %, EUR 376 billion). In extra-EU imports China was the largest partner with a share of 20 % (EUR 375 billion) in front of the United States (14 %, EUR 255 billion).

Figure 3: The position of China among the EU's main partners, 2017
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_maineu)

The EU continuously had a trade deficit with China from 2008 to 2017 (Figure 4). In this time span, trade between the two economies hit a low in 2009 due to falling imports, but quickly recovered. There were some fluctuations in the trade balance which was below EUR 140 billion in 2009, 2013 and 2014, but above EUR 170 billion in 2008, 2010 and from 2015 onwards. In 2017 it was EUR 176 billion.

Figure 4: Imports, exports and trade balance between the EU and China, 2008-2017 (EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_maineu)

Manufactured goods dominate trade with China

When breaking down imports and exports by SITC groups, the main categories driving the exports to and imports from China are 'Machinery and vehicles’, 'Other manufactured goods’ and 'Chemicals' (Figure 5). Together these manufactured goods made up 85 % of the EU exports and 97 % of imports in 2017 (see Figure 5). In exports from the EU to China, 'Machinery and vehicles' (54 %) was around three times as large as 'Other manufactured goods' (18 %) while in imports from China 'Machinery and vehicles' (52 %) was much closer to 'Other manufactured goods’ (40 %).

Figure 5: EU-28 exports to and imports from China by product group, 2008 and 2017 (EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat DS-018995

Figure 6 shows the evolution of EU imports and exports by SITC group since 2008. In 2017 the EU has trade surpluses in 'Chemicals', 'Food & drink, 'Raw materials', 'Energy' and 'Other goods'. However these were dwarfed by the large trade deficits in 'Other manufactured goods' and 'Machinery and vehicles’.

Figure 6: EU-28 trade with China by product group, 2008-2017 (EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat DS-018995

Most traded goods: telecommunications equipment

Figure 7 gives more details about the goods exchanged between the EU and China, showing the top 20 traded goods in more detail (by SITC level 3). Those top 20 goods covered around 52 % of total traded goods in 2017. Eleven of the products among the top 20 belong to the ‘Machinery and transport equipment’ group, eight to 'Other manufactured goods' and one to 'Chemicals'. 'Telecommunications equipment' was the most traded product followed by 'automatic data processing machines' and 'motor cars and vehicles'.

Another interesting way to look at data is to investigate the export/import ratio of traded goods, in order to better identify the direction taken by flows and specialisation between the two areas. These ratios can be found in the right margin of Figure 8. For the top product, the ratio is 5 meaning that EU exports to China cover only 5 % of EU imports from China. Thirteen of the top 20 products have a ratio below 100 of which eight are below 10. Among the top 20 products the highest values are found for 'motor cars and vehicles', 'aircraft' and 'medicaments'. The only top 20 products where there were comparable flows in both directions were electrical apparatus for 'electrical circuits' and 'electronic tubes' with ratios of 82 and 126 respectively.

Figure 7: Most traded goods with China, top 20 of SITC level 3 products, 2017 (EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat DS-018995

Germany trading most with China

Table 8a shows Member States' imports from China and the share of the partner China in national extra-EU imports. Table 8b provides similar information but concerning Member States' exports to China.

There were six Member States whose imports from China in 2017 were higher than EUR 20 billion: the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Spain. Together they accounted for just over three quarters of all imports from China. Imports from China as a share of total extra-EU imports were higher than 10 % for all countries except Lithuania (9.6 %) , Luxembourg (9.3 %) and Malta (8.7 %). The share was highest in the Czech Republic (33.9 %) and the Netherlands (30.4 %).

Table 8a: Imports from China by Member State, 2017
Source: Eurostat DS-018995

There were five Member States whose exports to China in 2017 were higher than EUR 10 billion: Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Together they accounted for just over three quarters of all exports to China. The shares for China in total extra-EU exports were lower than they were for imports for all Member States except Luxembourg and Finland. They were above 10 % only in Germany (16.4 %), Finland (14.2 %), Denmark (11.5 %), Slovakia (11.3 %) and Sweden (11.0 %).

Table 8b: Exports to China by Member State, 2017
Source: Eurostat DS-018995

Table 8c shows that only three Member States had a trade surplus with China in 2017, these were Germany (EUR 15 billion), Finland and Ireland (both EUR 1.4 billion). The remaining 25 Member States had a trade deficit, which for the Netherlands (71 billion) and the United Kingdom (33 billion) exceeded EUR 30 billion. Spain and Italy (both EUR 15 billion) and Poland (EUR 14 billion) were the other Member States with trade deficits higher than EUR 10 billion.

Table 8c: Trade balance with China by Member State, 2017 (EUR million)
Source: Eurostat DS-018995

Data sources

EU data is taken from Eurostat's COMEXT database. COMEXT is the reference database for international trade in goods. It provides access not only to both recent and historical data from the EU Member States but also to statistics of a significant number of third countries. International trade aggregated and detailed statistics disseminated via the Eurostat website are compiled from COMEXT data according to a monthly process.

Data are collected by the competent national authorities of the Member States and compiled according to a harmonised methodology established by EU regulations before transmission to Eurostat. For extra-EU trade, the statistical information is mainly provided by the traders on the basis of customs declarations.

EU data are compiled according to Community guidelines and may, therefore, differ from national data published by the Member States. Statistics on extra-EU trade are calculated as the sum of trade of each of the 28 EU Member States with countries outside the EU. In other words, the EU is considered as a single trading entity and trade flows are measured into and out of the area, but not within it.

Data for the other major traders are taken from the Comtrade database of the United Nations. Data availability differs among countries, therefore Figure 1 shows the latest common available year for all the main traders. For the calculation of shares the world trade is defined as the sum of EU trade with non-EU countries (source: Eurostat) plus the international trade of non-EU countries (source: IMF Dots database).


According to the EU concepts and definitions, extra-EU trade statistics (trade between EU Member States and non-EU countries) do not record exchanges involving goods in transit, placed in a customs warehouse or given temporary admission (for trade fairs, temporary exhibitions, tests, etc.). This is known as ‘special trade’. The partner is the country of final destination of the goods for exports and the country of origin for imports.

Product classification

Information on commodities exported and imported is presented according to the Standard international trade classification (SITC). A full description is available from Eurostat’s classification server RAMON.

Unit of measure

Trade values are expressed in millions or billions (109) of euros. They correspond to the statistical value, i.e. to the amount which would be invoiced in the event of sale or purchase at the national border of the reporting country. It is called a FOB value (free on board) for exports and a CIF value (cost, insurance, freight) for imports.


Trade is an important indicator of Europe’s prosperity and place in the world. The bloc is deeply integrated into global markets both for the products it sources and the exports it sells. The EU trade policy is an important element of the external dimension of the ‘Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ and is one of the main pillars of the EU’s relations with the rest of the world.

Because the 28 EU Member States share a single market and a single external border, they also have a single trade policy. EU Member States speak and negotiate collectively, both in the World Trade Organization, where the rules of international trade are agreed and enforced, and with individual trading partners. This common policy enables them to speak with one voice in trade negotiations, maximising their impact in such negotiations. This is even more important in a globalised world in which economies tend to cluster together in regional groups.

The openness of the EU’s trade regime has meant that the EU is the biggest player on the global trading scene and remains a good region to do business with. Thanks to the ease of modern transport and communications, it is now easier to produce, buy and sell goods around the world which gives European companies of every size the potential to trade outside Europe.

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International trade in goods - long-term indicators (t_ext_go_lti)
International trade in goods - short-term indicators (t_ext_go_sti)
International trade in goods - aggregated data (ext_go_agg)
International trade in goods - long-term indicators (ext_go_lti)
International trade in goods - short-term indicators (ext_go_sti)
International trade in goods - detailed data (detail)
EU trade since 1988 by SITC (DS-018995)