WTO: China is Top Exporter of Face Masks

file photo
file photo

Published Apr 4, 2020 7:21 PM by The Maritime Executive

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has released a new report on the trade of medical products, noting that China is the top exporter of face masks and other personal protective equipment in severe short supply during the COVID-19 pandemic.

China supplied 25 percent of world exports of face masks in 2019, and together with Germany and the U.S., the three contribute to almost half of the world face mask supply.

Breathing apparatus, including respirators and ventilators, are supplied by a relatively small number of countries: Singapore which has 18 percent market share, followed by the U.S. with 16 percent, Netherlands 10 percent and China 10 percent.

Trade in products critical and in severe short supply during the COVID-19 pandemic totaled about $597 billion, or 1.7 percent of total world trade, in 2019. These include: disinfectants/ sterilization products; face masks; gloves; hand soap and sanitizer; patient monitors and pulse oximeters; protective spectacles and visors; sterilizers; syringes; thermometers; ultrasonic scanning apparatus; ventilators, oxygen masks; X-ray equipment; and other devices such as computer tomography apparatus.

Total exports of protective products, including face masks, hand soap, sanitizer and protective spectacles, were valued at $135 billion on average for the period 2017-2019. About 17 percent or $23 billion came from China, the top exporter, followed by Germany and the U.S. These three exporters account for more than 40 percent of world exports of protective supplies.

Commitments made under various WTO negotiations and agreements have helped slash import tariffs on COVID-19 critical products, with the average tariff on COVID-19 medical products standing at 4.8 percent, lower than the 7.6 percent average tariff for non-agricultural products in general. 

The WTO report traces trade flows for medical products including personal protective products, hospital and laboratory supplies, medicines and medical technology. Imports and exports of medical products totaled about $2 trillion in 2019, about five percent of total merchandise trade. During the last three years, the U.S. was the largest importer of medical products, accounting for 19 percent of total world imports in 2019.

The 10 largest supplying economies accounted for almost three-quarters of total world exports of the general medical products, including medicines, while the 10 largest buyers accounted for roughly two-thirds of world imports. Germany and the U.S. are the largest source of imports for China, with shares of 20 percent and 19 percent respectively.

Regarding the relative importance of medical goods to each country's total imports, Belgium and Switzerland's imports of medical goods represent around 13 percent of their total imports. Among the top 10 importers, this share is smallest for China, for which medical imports represent three percent of its total imports.

The statistics show that 52 percent of 134 WTO members impose a tariff of five percent or lower on medical products. Among them, four members do not levy any tariffs at all: Hong Kong, China; Iceland; Macao, China; and Singapore. The report also identifies markets where tariffs remain high. Tariffs on face masks, for example, can be as high as 55 percent in some countries. 

The report is available here.