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BERLIN (Reuters) - China for the first time became Germany's most important trading partner in 2016, overtaking the United States, which fell back to third place behind France, data showed on Friday.
German imports from and exports to China rose to 170 billion euros ($180 billion) last year, Federal Statistics Office figures reviewed by Reuters showed.
The development is likely to be welcomed by the German government, which has made it a goal to safeguard global free trade after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to impose tariffs on imports and his top adviser on trade accused Germany of exploiting a weak euro to boost exports.
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has even suggested that the European Union should refocus its economic policy toward Asia, should the Trump administration pursue protectionism.
"Given the protectionist plans of the new U.S. president one would expect that the trade ties between Germany and China will be further strengthened," Germany's BGA trade association said in response to the shift.
Neighbouring France remained the second-most important business partner with a combined trade volume of 167 billion euros. The United States came in third with 165 billion euros.
In 2015, the United States became the top trading partner for Germany, overtaking France for the first time since 1961 thanks to an upturn in the U.S. economy and a weaker euro.
Looking at exports alone, the United States remained the biggest client for products "Made in Germany" in 2016, importing goods from Europe's biggest economy worth some 107 billion euros.
France remained the second-most important single export destination for German goods with a sum of 101 billion euros, the data showed. Britain came in third, importing German goods worth 86 billion euros.
Britain accounted also for the biggest bi-lateral trade surplus: Exports surpassed imports from Britain by more than 50 billion euros, the figures showed.
The United States came in second with a bi-lateral trade deficit: German exports to the U.S. surpassed imports from there by 49 billion euros.
This means that Britain and the U.S. together accounted for roughly 40 percent of Germany's record trade surplus of 252.9 billion euros in 2016.
The figures are likely to fuel the debate about Germany's export performance, its trade surplus and global economic imbalances ahead of a meeting of G20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Baden-Baden mid-March.
Editing by Jeremy Gaunt