World trade in goods
Data extracted in June 2022.
Planned update: June 2023.
The EU accounted for 16.9 % of world exports and 15.1 % of world imports in goods in 2020.
The EU was the world’s leading exporter of food, drinks and tobacco as well as of chemical products in 2020 but was highly dependent upon imports of mineral fuels.
In 2020, the United States remained the principal destination for goods exported from the EU and China the main source of goods imported into the EU.
Globalisation patterns in EU trade and investment is an online Eurostat publication presenting a summary of recent European Union (EU) statistics on economic aspects of globalisation, focusing on patterns of EU trade and investment.
Patterns of international trade in goods have seen wide-ranging changes in recent decades reflecting, among others: trade liberalisation, the introduction of new technologies, different methods of industrial organisation and the development of global production chains. The relocation of some manufacturing activities has led to a shift in the composition of international trade, reflected in a higher share of total trade for intermediate goods (processed materials, parts and components), and lower shares for final (consumer) goods.
Statistics on international trade in goods
Note that the information presented in the overview article is based on statistics from the balance of payments (BOP) domain, while the statistics presented in this article are based on international trade in goods statistics (ITGS). There are a number of differences between the recommendations for international trade in goods statistics and the goods account of the balance of payments, for example in terms of coverage, the time of recording, or methods of valuation. These differences and adjustments may have a substantial effect on the final reporting of figures for these two distinct sources. Moreover, the data collection exercise for international trade in goods statistics is far more detailed, literally covering thousands of individual products. That said, in many countries one of the most important uses of international trade in goods statistics is as a data source for estimating components of the balance of payments and national accounts.
It is also important to note that changes in business models have implications for the collection and the reliability of international trade in goods statistics. For example, new forms of industrial organisation have led to an increasing share of intermediate goods being traded within and between enterprises as part of global value chains: these flows continue to be assessed as gross measures, which may appear to ‘inflate’ trade values, especially when intermediate goods are counted several times as they cross borders as part of intricate production chains (for example, as in the aerospace or motor vehicles industry).
World trade in goods: developments between 2010 and 2020
In 2020, extra-EU trade accounted for 16.9 % of world exports and 15.1 % of world imports in goods
Figures 1 and 2 provide information on the share of world exports and imports of goods, showing developments between 2010 and 2020. The biggest change in the structure of global exports of goods was an expansion in the share of Chinese exports, which rose from 13.1 % of the total value in 2010 to 18.6 % by 2020.
While China was the leading exporter of goods in 2020 (€ 2.2 trillion), the United States was the largest importer of goods (€ 2.3 trillion); the EU occupied the second position for both exports of goods, valued at € 1.9 trillion and imports of goods, valued at € 1.7 trillion. The EU, China and the United States have been the three largest global players for international trade in goods since 2004 (when China passed Japan). In 2007, China surpassed the United States as the second largest exporter of goods in the world and in 2014 China overtook the EU to record the highest share of exported goods, a position that it has since maintained.
Between 2010 and 2020, the EU’s share of the global exports of goods increased from 15.6 % in 2010 to 16.9 % by 2020, while the share of the United States dropped slightly from 10.6 % to 10.3 %. There was a contrasting pattern to developments in three other Asian economies as the shares of exported goods from Japan and South Korea contracted, while the share recorded by Hong Kong grew.
Between 2010 and 2020 there was rapid growth in the share of global trade for China
Although a large volume of literature exists concerning the rapid growth in the value of goods exported by China, less has been written about Chinese imports. These also rose at a very rapid pace, in part fueled by increasing demand for consumer goods from an emerging middle class, but also reflecting the role played by China in global production chains, whereby some goods may be imported for processing or assembly before being re-exported as intermediate or finished goods.
The Chinese share of world imports for trade in goods rose from 11.1 % in 2010 to 14.3 % in 2020 (a gain of 3.2 percentage points (p.p.). The import shares for the United States (+ 1.1 p.p.) and Hong Kong (+0.5 p.p.) also grew. By contrast the imports of the EU declined by 1.3 p.p. from 16.4 % in 2010 to 15.1 % in 2020. There was also a contraction in the shares of Japan (-1.1 p.p.) and the United Kingdom (-0.6 p.p) .
In 2020, the Chinese trade surplus for goods was € 486 billion
Table 1 compares the trade balance and cover ratio for international trade in goods in 2010 and 2020. Eight countries had a trade surplus both in 2010 and 2020: Australia, Brazil, China, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea and United Arab Emirates. For six of those the surplus grew in this period, with the largest increase of € 330 billion for China. The second largest increase of the trade balance was recorded by the EU who turned a deficit of 134 billion into a surplus of 152 billion, thus improving its balance by 286 billion. Mexico and South Africa also turned their deficits into surpluses. Finally, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States had deficits in both years.
While the trade balance provides information on the absolute value of trading positions, the cover ratio provides a relative measure that is based on the ratio (expressed in percentage terms) between the value of exports and the value of imports; when exports are higher than imports then the cover ratio is above 100 %. In 2019, the highest cover ratios for international trade in goods were recorded for Russia (145.5 %), the United Arab Emirates (135.8 %) and China (126.0 %). Cover ratios for these three countries were higher in 2020 than they had been in 2010, confirming that their trade surplus for trade in goods were continuing to expand not only in absolute terms but also in relative terms, as export growth outstripped import growth.
By contrast, the lowest cover ratios for international trade in goods were recorded in Turkey (77.3 %), India (74.9 %), the United Kingdom (63.3 %) and the United States (59.5 %); Of those four, the United Kingdom and the United States had a lower cover ratio in 2020 than in 2010.
The global financial and economic crisis had a considerable impact on the level of international trade in goods; this was in contrast to the pattern of development for trade in services which was less affected by the crisis. In this context, it is important to remember that the global value of trade in goods is approximately three times as high as that for services.
The downturn in the value of international trade in goods in 2009 was followed by a rebound the following year and subsequent growth through to 2012. Thereafter, the global value of world exports and imports was somewhat irregular: there was relatively little change in trade levels in 2013 and 2014; strong growth was observed in 2015 followed by a downturn in 2016; further growth was observed between 2017 and 2019, followed by a sharp drop in 2020.
Aside from the impact of the global financial and economic crisis on levels of trade in 2009 and the subsequent rebound, another striking aspect of the information shown in Figure 3 is the rapid pace to the development of China’s trade in goods. Although Chinese exports and imports rose at a much faster pace than for any of the other leading trading nations, there was some evidence of a slowdown in the growth of Chinese trading activity between 2012 and 2015 with an actual fall in 2016, a year in which the main five countries/geographical aggregates recorded contractions with the exception of exports from Japan. These downturns were short-lived, as the value of exports and imports increased between 2017 and 2019 in all of the countries. In 2020, exports from the United States and Japan and imports into the United States, Japan, China and Hong Kong dropped.
International trade in goods by product
In 2020, the EU was the world’s leading exporter of food, drinks and tobacco as well as of chemical products …
Table 2 details the leading global exporters and importers for a range of different product groups (based on the standard international trade classification (SITC Rev. 4) of the United Nations). In 2020, the EU had the highest value of exports for food, drinks and tobacco as well as for chemicals and related products, whereas China was the leading exporter for machinery and transport equipment and for other manufactured goods. the United Arab Emirates was the leading exporter for mineral fuels and lubricants, Australia for raw materials and the United States for commodities and transactions not elsewhere classified.
… but was highly dependent upon imports of mineral fuels The EU had the second highest level of imports for mineral fuels and lubricants as well as raw materials, reflecting its high level of dependency for these goods while China had the highest imports for both of these. The United States had the highest share of global imports for the other five categories.
While the leading global exporters and importers in absolute terms are unsurprisingly some of the largest economies, Table 3 provides an alternative analysis focusing on relative specialisation ratios. These are based on the share of total exports/imports accounted for by a particular product, comparing the shares of one country with the average share for all 16 reporting countries/geographical aggregates analysed in this article (see Table 1 for the list). For example, the share of raw materials in the total value of goods exported by Australia in 2020 was 4.7 times as high as the average share for the 16 reporting countries, while the share of raw materials in the total value of goods imported by China was 3.4 times as high as the average.
The results based on this relative measure show a greater variation than the absolute levels of trade shown in Table 1. It shows Brazil being the most specialised country for exporting food, drinks and tobacco, Australia for raw materials, the United Arab Emirates for mineral fuels and lubricants, India for chemicals and related products, Turkey for other manufactured goods and Hong Kong for machinery and transport equipment.
On the import side it shows Russia being the most specialised country for food, drinks and tobacco, China for raw materials, India for mineral fuels and lubricants, Brazil for chemicals and related products, the United Kingdom for other manufactured goods and Hong Kong for machinery and transport equipment.
Developed economies often specialise in exporting high value goods, while emerging economies tend to focus on exporting natural resource endowments or lower value goods
Table 4 reverses the focus of the analysis, detailing for each country where its relative trade specialisation lies. The information presented confirms the role played by the natural endowments of particular goods. For example, Australia, Brazil and South Africa were all relatively specialised in exporting raw materials, whereas these products accounted for the highest import specialisation ratio in China. It is also interesting to note that while several developed economies were relatively specialised in exporting high value goods (chemicals and related products, machinery and transport equipment and other manufactured goods), their highest import specialisation ratios were recorded for more basic goods (mineral fuels and lubricants, food, drinks and tobacco and raw materials).
International trade in goods by partner
Traditionally, trade in high value goods was relatively concentrated between developed economies, while international trade flows between the developing and developed world were largely concentrated on the supply of raw materials and basic goods (such as food). However, globalisation has resulted in some changes to the geographical orientation of trade, through the emergence of new trading relationships, often at the expense of trade with more developed economies.
The rapid growth of China in terms of its integration into the global economy during the last couple of decades was given added impetus by China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001. Within the context of globalisation, it is important to note that China often plays a role as a ‘hub’ for global production chains, often importing semi-finished (intermediate) goods before assembling finished goods for re-export. As such, trade flows with China may in some cases be interpreted as flows that represent a wider Asian region, insofar as China sources many of its intermediate parts/components from its surrounding economies.
In 2020, the United States remained the principal destination for goods exported by the EU
Table 5 shows bilateral trade relationships for goods in 2010 and 2020 and confirms the rise of China as a trading power. In 2010 it already appeared six times as main export partner and four times as main import partner for the countries in the table. By 2020 this had grown to nine top positions for exports and six for imports. In contrast the EU lost its top position as main export partner for Brazil and the United Arab Emirates to China. For imports the EU appeared six times as top partner in 2010. In 2020 two of those, namely Brazil and India were lost to China and the United States respectively. Apart from the size of an economy, the position of top import or export partner is also influenced by the proximity of countries. Examples of this are the United States - Mexico - Canada; the EU - United Kingdom - Russia; and Singapore - Malaysia - China.
The EU economy is one of the most ‘open’, global economies with import tariffs on industrial products among some of the lowest in the world. For example, in 2019 only 4.2 % of non-agricultural products faced import duties in excess of 15 % (see Table 6). The EU also has a comprehensive network of arrangements for preferential trade that goes beyond more general WTO rules, for example, giving many developing countries preferential access to its markets for ‘everything but arms’.
Source data for tables, figures and maps (MS Excel)
Direct access to
- Globalisation patterns in EU trade and investment (Chapters 2 and 6)
- International trade in goods (t_ext_go), see:
- International trade in goods - long-term indicators (t_ext_go_lti)
- International trade in goods - aggregated data (ext_go_agg)
- International trade in goods - long-term indicators (ext_go_lti)