HONG KONG -- China's trade surplus in 2006 soared to $177.47 billion, far more than in any previous year on record, as the country's exports continued to grow briskly, the Chinese customs administration said last night.
China's widening trade surplus - it was $102 billion in 2005 - has been a slowly festering issue in its relationship with the United States, one of its major trading partners. In Washington, Democratic Party leaders have promised to give it greater attention this year, now that they control both houses of Congress.
The official New China News Agency said that China's Ministry of Commerce had previously expected the country's trade surplus to be $168 billion.
Trade data released yesterday provided only an overall snapshot of Chinese trade last year, and few detailed breakdowns by country or product were available. Last month, Chinese officials released figures showing that their country's trade surplus with the United States for the first 11 months of last year was nearly equal to China's entire trade surplus with all other countries, and there has been no sign that the trend changed last month.
But China's monthly trade surplus did narrow slightly in December, to $21 billion, after reaching $22.9 billion in November and $23.83 billion in October.
Ben Simpfendorfer, a currency strategist at the Royal Bank of Scotland, said that China's trade surplus appeared to be leveling off, but at a high level. Compared with economists' expectations, he said, the trade surplus in December "looks just a touch bigger, but not remarkably so."
China's reported trade performance in the final month of the year has tended to vary widely from year to year, so many Western experts treat December figures with caution. Chinese statisticians have a long habit of making significant adjustments to December figures in many categories, not just trade, to make full-year figures correspond more closely to the statisticians' sense of economic performance or to government leaders' economic targets.
Among the handful of categories for which China did release full-year figures yesterday, the most eye-catching was steel. Chinese steel exports more than doubled last year, the government said.
Steel has been at the center of international trade disputes for decades, and some American steel companies and unions are now encouraging the U.S. government to take action against Chinese steel exports.