SEOUL, South Korea — Shin Cheol-soo no longer sees his future in the United States.
The South Korean businessman supplied components to American automakers for a decade. But this year, he uprooted his family from Detroit and moved home to focus on selling to the new economic superpower: China.
In just five years, China has surpassed the United States as a trading partner for much of the world, including U.S. allies such as South Korea and Australia, according to an Associated Press analysis of trade data. As recently as 2006, the U.S. was the larger trading partner for 127 countries, versus just 70 for China. By last year the two had clearly traded places: 124 countries for China, 76 for the U.S.
In the most abrupt global shift of its kind since World War II, the trend is changing the way people live and do business from Africa to Arizona, as farmers plant more soybeans to sell to China and students sign up to learn Mandarin.
The findings show how fast China has ascended to challenge America’s century-old status as the globe’s dominant trader, a change that is gradually translating into political influence. They highlight how pervasive China’s impact has been, spreading from neighboring Asia to Africa and now emerging in Latin America, the traditional U.S. backyard.
Despite China’s now-slowing economy, its share of world output and trade is expected to keep rising, with growth forecast at up to 8 percent a year over the next decade, far above U.S. and European levels. This growth could strengthen the hand of a new generation of just-named Chinese leaders, even as it fuels strain with other nations.
Last year, Shin’s ENA Industry Co. made half his sales of rubber and plastic parts to U.S. factories. But his plans call for China, which overtook the United States as the biggest auto market in 2009, to rise fivefold to 30 percent of his total by 2015.
He and his children are studying Mandarin.
“The United States is a tiger with no power,” Shin said in his office, where three walls are lined with books, many about China. “Nobody can deny that China is the one now rising.”
The recession set everyone back, but China less so than the U.S. or other major traders such as Germany.
China does a bigger share of its trade with developing countries that suffered less and rebounded faster, while the United States sells to rich economies that are struggling. Chinese companies have boosted exports by 7 percent this year despite anemic global demand.
France’s wine exports to China first surged in 2009, and by last year, China had surpassed the U.S. as a customer by volume. Americans still spend more, because they buy more-expensive wines. But China is developing a taste for grand cru wine, the “great growths” that are considered exceptional and command higher prices.
China’s outbound investment totaled $67.6 billion last year — just one-sixth of America’s nearly $400 billion — but it could reach $2 trillion by 2020, according to a forecast by Rhodium Group, a research firm in New York City.
As a result, Chinese companies are using a new export — jobs.
Employees at Volvo Cars worried after Chinese automaker Geely Holdings bought the money-losing Swedish brand from Ford Motor Co. in 2010. But two years later, instead of moving jobs to China, Geely has expanded Volvo’s European work force of 19,500 to about 21,500.
Majority-owned U.S. affiliates of Chinese companies support about 27,000 American jobs, up from fewer than 10,000 five years ago, according to Rhodium.
In Goodyear, Ariz., Stacey Rassas was laid off in May 2010 after a 16-year career in quality control for aerospace and aluminum manufacturers. By late autumn, she and her husband were worried they might lose their house.
She finally landed a job that December at a new factory that makes solar panels for one of the world’s biggest solar manufacturers.
“It was the best day ever,” she said.
Her new employer? Suntech Power Holdings Co., a Chinese company.