China’s exports of pharmaceutical products increased 6.84% last year, but its imports of such products rose 6.84%, according to new industry figures.

The country’s total trade involving pharmaceuticals experienced a rise of 10.27% in 2013 over 2012 to reach a value of $89.69 billion, but the trade surplus for the sector showed a drop of 12% to $12.67 billion last year, according to the latest data from the China Chamber of Commerce for Imports and Exports of Medicine and Health Products.

“China’s pharmaceutical industry is entering a critical period of transformation as it is losing its traditional competitiveness, such as price, and is also faced with sluggish international markets, especially in Europe and the United States,” commented the Chamber’s vice-chairman, Xu Ming.

Strong demand for high value-added products was reported to have driven pharmaceutical export growth last year, with sales to overseas markets of western medicines increasing 5.82%. However, overseas sales of bulk active pharmaceutical ingredients, which account for just over 46% of China’s total pharmaceutical export trade, have been slowing each quarter since the fourth quarter of 2012 and in third-quarter 2013 they experienced their sharpest-ever decline, dropping 9.52%.

Pointing to the strict regulatory, quality and registration hurdles in many overseas markets which are causing problems for Chinese drugmakers, Mr Xu called on these firms to work more closely with foreign manufacturers and obtain more international certifications.

The Chamber also reports that exports of medical devices are doing well, having risen 9.92% in 2013 compared to 2012. Mr Xu commented that the medical device sector is “doing much better than drugs,” and that China is now the world’s biggest exporter of small and medium-sized medical equipment. He forecast that China’s health sector exports overall will increase by some 10% this year, and that the continued strong performance of the devices sector will be a major driver of this growth. 

Also doing well are exports of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) products, which increased 25.54% to reach a total of $3.14 billion last year. Growth here is being driven by rising international demand for plant extracts and Chinese herbal medicine, says the Chamber.