China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest exporter of a broad category of electronic goods, including computers, mobile phones and digital cameras, the OECD said Monday.

The report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is seen as marking a milestone in China’s diversification from low-tech textile sweatshops into sophisticated electronics factories.

Chinese exports of information and communications technology goods rose by 46 per cent year-on-year to $180 billion US in 2004, outstripping U.S. exports of $149 billion, 12 per cent higher than the previous year.

China’s positive trade balance in tech products almost tripled to $31 billion last year from $12 billion in 2003. The country first became a net exporter of such goods just a year before that, recording a 2002 surplus of $3 billion.

Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, the report’s author, said it highlighted China’s steady rise up the value chain – from televisions, stereos and other low-margin electronic goods to expensive hi-tech equipment.

China’s booming trade surplus in PCs and laptops stood at $45.4 billion last year, the new data showed, and its overall trade in ICT goods has grown an average 38 per cent per year since 1996. China also overtook Japan as the main exporter of such goods to the United States last year.

European and U.S. mobile phone and PC producers have been investing heavily in China, and Chinese computer maker Lenovo Group Ltd. acquired the PC operations of International Business Machines Corp. for $1.75 billion in May.

China still depends heavily on imports for the microchips and circuit-board components it needs to feed its booming hardware manufacturing industry, the OECD report said. China’s overall trade deficit in components swelled to nearly $62 billion last year.

But Europe and the United States are seeing their share of that parts trade shrinking, the report added, and America now enjoys only a “very small surplus” in components.

“To manufacture laptops and advanced mobile phones, China previously relied on electronic components, such as computer chips, imported from the EU and United States,” it said.

These are now being increasingly sourced from countries like Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Malaysia, which all have major tech goods trade surpluses with China as a result.