The persistent deficit demonstrated how reliant companies are on China’s vast manufacturing capacity, which was highlighted again by the pandemic. China was the only country capable of increasing output on a big enough scale to meet surging demand for goods such as work-from-home computers and medical equipment.

Trump repeatedly said that China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 caused its economy to take off like a “rocket ship,” a result he viewed as unfair. As it turned out, Trump’s trade war with China coincided with another expansion in Chinese exports. After shrinking for two straight years in 2015 and 2016, China’s total shipments grew each year after Trump took office, including in 2019 when exports to the U.S. fell.

A group of 10 Southeast Asian nations replaced the U.S. as China’s second-largest trading partner in 2019. The shift to Asia is likely to continue as Southeast Asian economies are projected to grow faster than developed countries over the next decade. Those trade links will be further cemented by the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership pact signed late last year, which will see 15 regional economies gradually drop some tariffs on each others’ goods.