$113 billion in 2021: India-US goods trade marks new record

ByPrashant Jha and Rajeev Jayaswal
Feb 10, 2022 04:53 PM IST

It represents an almost 45% jump from 2020, and while US trade with its top 15 partners increased over the past year, the single biggest jump was with India. India retains a trade surplus in the relationship

WASHINGTON/ NEW DELHI: In yet another sign of the deepening economic relationship between India and the United States (US), bilateral trade in goods between the two countries crossed the $100 billion mark in 2021, making it the largest volume of goods trade in a calendar year in India-US economic history.

US trade representative Katherine Tai (right) shakes hands with India's commerce minister Piyush Goyal before the start of a meeting in New Delhi on November 22, 2021. (AFP/File)
US trade representative Katherine Tai (right) shakes hands with India's commerce minister Piyush Goyal before the start of a meeting in New Delhi on November 22, 2021. (AFP/File)

This also represents an almost 45% jump from 2020, and while US trade with its top 15 partners increased over the past year, the single biggest jump was with India.

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India retains a trade surplus in the relationship.

According to figures released by the US Census Bureau, India-US bilateral goods trade was worth $113.391 billion from January to December 2021. India exported goods worth over $73 billion, and imported goods worth a little over $40 billion dollars. In 2020 – an unusual year because of the pandemic and subsequent economic restrictions – trade fell to a little over $78.2 billion, from the high of $92.1 billion in 2019. India had then exported goods worth $57.8 billion and imported goods worth $34.2 billion.

Placing the figures in perspective, Richard M Rossow, the Wadhwani chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the foremost expert of the bilateral economic relationship in Washington DC, said that bilateral trade has been on an upward trajectory for 20 years, and shrunk year-on-year only thrice since 2002. “While we should certainly pause to celebrate the milestone of crossing $100 billion in bilateral trade, it is not far off the overall trajectory of the trade relationship in this period.” The 45% jump, he said, was due to the “deep trough” in 2020, as both India and the US dealt with the initial onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mukesh Aghi, president and chief executive officer of the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), said that a key reason for the spike in Indian exports to the US was the concerted increase in demand in the US market. “The US has seen consumption-driven growth in the past year. There was pent-up demand for items such as jewellery and electronics, which has got channelled in the last six months. The fact that US companies have also sought to diversify their supply chains has played a role, too. Electronic component markets have moved production to India. For instance, Apple now exports a million smart phones from India to the US every month.” The challenge, he added, was to sustain the momentum.

When asked what had driven the spike, Rossow said that while the details of which products drove the record-breaking year was not clear yet, the push by the Donald Trump administration to sell American hydrocarbons to India had been a key factor in enabling greater trade. “A decade ago, the US had nearly zero exports of natural gas, coal, or crude oil to India. Today, these three are all among the 10 biggest export categories. US imports from India are more balanced, with good increases in trade among a range of categories. But a few stand out as over-performers such as furniture, aluminium and food products.”

An official familiar with the bilateral relationship said that the spike in trade was also a product of the concerted Indian attempts to deepen economic ties with a range of American economic stakeholders – be it through extensive commercial engagement or facilitating business-to-business exchanges or working to get commitments by major American corporates to source material from India or proactively leveraging the sentiment in the US to diversify from China.

A second official pointed out that the trade figures also firmly rebut the impression of India turning inwards and protectionist, and in fact, show that its outwards economic engagement, on its own terms, will only increase.

While India is working with Australia, the UK, European Union, Canada and the US to push through larger trade arrangements, any major free trade agreement is unlikely, especially with the US, given the domestic political mood in Washington against trade pacts.

When asked if the increase in India-US trade showed that both countries have found ways to deepen ties while circumventing established formats, Rossow said, “Trade deals are helpful to boost trade ties, but far from essential. In recent decades, nations such as Japan, [South] Korea, Taiwan, and China managed to become major global trade players without vast networks of trade deals. It does, however, feel like our nations continue to defy gravity. Both governments have taken protectionist steps in recent years, both globally and towards each other. Whether this continued growth in trade can be sustained in light of anti-trade policies remains to be seen.”


A commerce ministry spokesperson said, “The India-US Trade Policy Forum Ministerial meeting held in November after a gap of four years has given further positive momentum for enhancing bilateral trade relations. In the meeting, ministers (India’s commerce minister and the US trade representative) agreed to intensify their engagement on trade matters and take up outstanding issues for resolution in a time-bound manner. A robust business partnership between two countries is going to grow further due to the inclusion of more goods and services, and the hard work being put in by all the stake holders.”

Earlier, an official working in the economic affairs ministry said, requesting anonymity, “India and the US are deeply engaged with each other, which reflects in the enhanced trade numbers and the potential is immense.”

According to India’s official data, India-US trade in calendar year 2021 (Jan-December) was $112.626 billion - $71.203 billion exports to the US and $41.423 billion imports. Principle commodities exported to the US are precious and semi-precious stones, drugs and pharmaceuticals, petroleum products, cotton fabrics, garments, marine products, iron and steel products, electrical equipment and auto components.

Crude oil was the biggest import from the US, worth $10,395 billion in 2021. Other items of imports are pearls, precious and semi-precious stones, petroleum products, coal, coke, organic chemicals, gold, paper and paper board.

Recently, the US approved imports of mangoes and pomegranate from India and secured New Delhi’s approval to export cherries, alfalfa hay, pork and pork products to India, said a second person who wished not to be named.

“This is as per a recent agreement between the Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare and the US Department of Agriculture for implementing ‘2 vs 2’ agri market access,” the person said. The agreement follows the 12th India-US Trade Policy Forum (TPF) meeting held on November 23, 2021.

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