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The changing tide of Europe's trade with Asia

By George Webster for CNN
  • Six of Hamburg Port's top ten trading partners are from Asia, but it's not all one-way traffic
  • Domestic economies in the East are demanding more European goods, particularly at the luxury end
  • Experts say there is a chance for European nations to capitalize on emerging markets -- if they can adapt

This interactive is part of a series using video, data and graphics to take a look at major transport hubs featured on The Gateway.

(CNN) -- You can tell a lot about the state of European trade by strolling along the docks at the Port of Hamburg.

As the continent's second largest container port, it handles over 120 million tons of cargo a year, so the flow of trade coming in and out of its busy harbor is a bellwether for the trading winds of EU nations as a whole.

It's no surprise that, of Hamburg's top 10 trading partners, six are from Asia -- with China alone accounting for over half of all trade in 2010.

The surprise is that, while much of this partnership is down to Europe's appetite for cheap shirts and electrical appliances, the dominance of Asian countries on the chart is due -- in increasing measure -- to the growth of demand for European goods in the east.

"Exports to China surged by 23.6% in 2010," says Claudia Roller, Port of Hamburg marketing CEO. Roller also points out that most of Hamburg's top trading partners in Asia shipped in nearly as much as they shipped out last year (as shown on the interactive above).

Hamburg's shipping containers
The Maschen Rail "ballet"

Indeed, latest figures from the World Trade Organization (WTO) indicate that China is today the EU's second biggest export market, usurping the likes of Japan and Russia and biting at the heels of the United States -- for decades Europe's biggest customer.

Danny Quah is professor of economics and global governance at the London School of Economics. He believes that we're finally starting to see the effect of rising incomes filtering through to the household sector across developing Asia, stimulating demand for imported goods.

"It's good news for the EU that China and developing nations are becoming richer," he said, noting that while EU exports to the United States have collapsed by some 20% since the height of the financial crisis in 2008, much-needed comfort has come from the developing east where imports "have just kept on rising."

The Port of Hamburg: A day in the life

So what do European producers have to offer the continent that makes everything for everyone else?

"High-quality design," says Quah. "If you go to Hong Kong you'll find the biggest Louis Vuitton store in the world -- that says a lot about the appeal of well-made, high-end European products in Asia."

It's a claim that Coleman Nee, from the WTO's economic affairs office, says is echoed by some of his organization's own statistics. He points to the fact that while Germany's overall trade deficit with China was a hefty $13.1 billion in 2010, trade specifically from automotive products achieved a $17 billion surplus -- double that of the previous year.

The EU as a whole also enjoys a significant surplus in beverages - which includes wine and whiskey.

But Nee recoils from predictions about the shape of trade balances to come. "It's really hard to say what's going to happen," he said. "The Chinese are importing more but they are also exporting more -- remember that last year their trade surplus with the EU was $140 billion."

It's good news for the EU that China and developing nations are becoming richer
--Professor Danny Quah, London School of Economics

However, Quah is convinced that an era of balanced trade is "very much on the horizon," citing announcements in March of China's first quarterly trade deficit in seven years as a sign of things to come.

Should European producers be rubbing their hands in expectation? As ever, it's not quite as simple as that.

According to Quah, the greatest problem for the EU is how it recalibrates its entrenched patterns of trade.

"For instance, the UK is a hugely open economy and a very successful trading country -- but 60% of its total exports are to 10 of the slowest growing countries in the world," he says.

On the other hand, Germany -- whose total exports to developing Asia recently overtook those to the U.S. -- has been much more successful at adapting to a world where "there will no longer be a single pole of attraction, but multiple poles."

So will European countries capitalize on Asia's emerging markets? Could balanced trade between the two continents really be around the corner? One thing seems sure: the tide is changing.