China’s exports to the world of personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by medical professionals when treating coronavirus (COVID-19) declined by only 15 percent in January and February of 2020 compared with the same two-month period in 2019. Meanwhile, China’s exports of all other products declined by 17 percent.
The same trend is visible across China’s key trading relationships. PPE exports to the European Union fell by only 17 percent, while exports of all other products dropped by 20 percent. The pattern is even more pronounced in exports to the United States. China’s PPE sales to the United States declined by only 19 percent, while sales of all other products fell by 28 percent.
A larger decline in Chinese sales to US relative to EU buyers was expected. Lingering US tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese medical products resulted in the US purchasing fewer medical products from China. President Donald Trump finally agreed to lift the tariffs on some of these critical medical supplies on March 10 and 17, 2020.
These data are a welcome sign that China was not voluntarily holding back PPE exports to the United States and the rest of the world, as was widely feared, and offer some relief about future access to vital imports.
This PIIE Chart was adapted from Chad P. Bown’s blog post, “COVID-19: China's exports of medical supplies provide a ray of hope”.