Many Christmas decorations in the United States are imported from the Indo-Pacific. [Image: Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images]

The United States and Asia: Trade Connections Weaved by Christmas Lights, Candles, and Ornaments

China The Mekong ASEAN

Surprising to many, China, Cambodia, and Vietnam have made their mark on US Christmas decorations in recent years. According to the US Census Bureau, Christmas ornaments from China have dominated US markets totaling up to $2.1 billion dollars in imports in 2019, and $2.6 billion in 2020. Additionally, out of the $546.8 million dollars in imported tapered candles in the United States in 2019, 46.8% came from Vietnam. This follows a global trend of top exporters of Christmas decorations. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, the top exporters of lighting sets of a kind used for Christmas trees globally in 2019 were China ($1.07B), Cambodia ($237M), Philippines ($82.1M), Netherlands ($52.6M), and Mexico ($24.2M). As these statistics show, many Christmas decorations in the United States could have come from the Indo-Pacific.

The United States is the world’s largest Christmas light market, adding up to 22% of the global import volume in 2020. There has been a shift in this market in the Indo-Pacific region from China being the top importer, to countries such as Cambodia and the Philippines, as a result of the US-China trade war and the pandemic. In the first 10 months of 2019, China exported 113 million fewer sets of Christmas lights to the United States than it did in 2018. Collectively that year in the United States, imported Christmas lights from other countries were down 4.3%. However, imported Christmas lights from Cambodia increased 223%, and other Asian countries (except Cambodia and China) increased 100%.

In 2021, from January to October, the total worth of imported Christmas lights to the United States equaled about $511 million dollars, just a 10% increase from 2020. Cambodia now surpasses China as the top exporter of Christmas lights to the United States, contributing 60.1% of the total US imports in 2020. Due to changes in the supply chain, Americans had to pay more for Christmas lights this year, reaching an import price of $3.08 per unit, a 7% increase. The cause of the increased price of Christmas lights can be found all along the supply chain. The increased price stems from factors such as lower production, increased freight rates, and increased prices in raw materials.

This example of Christmas decorations shows the complexity of our global supply chains, even for items as small as Christmas decorations. The importance of Indo-Pacific exports for the United States market, which in 2020 totaled up to $1 trillion dollars, is reflected in this small case.

Vannary Kong is a Project Assistant at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a Master's Student at Harvard University pursuing International Relations with a Certificate in National Security.