$32b Disappointment: China’s 2023 Purchases of U.S. Ag Products Sluggish

Just a few years ago, it seemed that U.S. ag exports to China might never return to pre-trade war highs of around $29b annually. But now, after back-to-back years of new highs in 2021 ($35.9b) and 2022 ($40.9b), 2023’s decline to just $31.6b of purchases feels disappointing (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Value of China’s Purchases of U.S. Ag & Related Products, 2008 – 2023. Data Source: USDA GATS.


Activity slips for key commodities

Over the last three years, soybeans, corn, and beef exports to China were important to monitor. Soybeans made the list because they represent about half of U.S. ag exports to China (on a dollar basis). Corn and beef exports were significant as both drove a large share of the upturn in record activity. 2023 data, however, reveals the quantities exported slipped for all three.

During the 2023 calendar year, corn exports were just 5.7mmt, a 65% annual decline. While an abrupt adjustment, China’s purchases didn’t return to pre-pandemic activity. This is to say that China is buying more corn than “normal,” but nothing like the last few years. Furthermore, China purchased 138,000mt of corn in January 2024 alone, equal to 50% of its annual 2018 and 2019 corn purchases. Overall, China’s corn purchase activity in the U.S. has been all over the board but, unfortunately, not running at the high end of the range.

Figure 2. China’s Annual Purchases of U.S. Corn, 2016-2023. Data Source: USDA GATS.


After a record 244,000mt of U.S. beef exports to China in 2022, activity slipped nearly 30% to 189,000 metric tons last year (Figure 3). Again, the decline was significant, but activity is essentially unchanged from 2021.

Figure 3. China’s Annual Purchases of U.S. Beef, 2016-2023. Data Source: USDA GATS.


Finally, China purchased just 26.6mmt of U.S. soybeans in 2023, a 14% decline. In 2016 and 2020, China’s U.S. purchases were 36mmt and 34mmt. On the one hand, China isn’t buying U.S. soybeans like it used to, but on the other hand, domestic U.S. soybean crush has never been stronger.

Figure 4. China’s Annual Purchases of U.S. Soybeans, 2016-2023. Data Source: USDA GATS.

2023 soybean export activity is noteworthy because the pace started optimistically before slowing in the fall. Figure 5 shows the same conclusion as Figure 4 but includes the monthly cumulative activity. The last three calendar months are important as they historically account for 57% of total annual soybean exports (January and February are also significant, collectively accounting for 24%). With the historic soybean export window for the 2023/24 marketing year closing, we likely won’t have any potential recovery until the autumn.

Figure 5. China’s Cumulative Purchases of U.S. Soybeans, 2016-2023. Data: USDA GATS and AEI.ag Calculations.

Wrapping it up

U.S. ag exports to China in 2023 were the third highest in 15 years but also 23% lower than a year ago. Lower commodity prices contributed to some of the decline, but the quantity declines shouldn’t be overlooked.

Now that commodity prices are lower and U.S. ending stocks are higher, any upturn in export activity would be a welcome development.