Don’t blame China’s currency for its trade surplus

July 12, 2011, 8:51 PM UTC

FORTUNE — China’s closely watched trade surplus swelled to $22.3 billion in June, hitting a seven-month high amid troubles in some of the country’s biggest overseas markets. Chinese exports rose 17.9% compared with the same period a year ago even as high unemployment in the U.S. and escalating debt problems in parts of Europe continued constraining consumers.

The strong numbers underscore the resilience of Chinese exports. But that’s not exactly good news as officials try to rebalance growth so that the world’s second-largest economy is more reliant on selling goods and services at home than abroad. And the figures, released by China’s government earlier this week, could boost pressure on Beijing from the U.S. and other countries to let the yuan appreciate faster.

Although China’s currency has generally helped the country sell goods and services cheaply abroad, June’s trade surplus has more to do with factors beyond the yuan’s value.

Since China began to let its currency rise in June 2010, it has strengthened more than 5.5% against the U.S. dollar. The efforts aren’t enough for some, however. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has publicly urged China to accelerate appreciation of its currency. And some U.S. lawmakers have suggested more punitive actions to deal with nations believed to be artificially keeping their currencies weak. This isn’t all too surprising, given that the U.S. and others recovering from the financial crisis have been counting on exports to grow their economies.

But for all the bad rap the yuan gets, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s really deserved.

June’s trade surplus reflects a significant slowdown in Chinese imports, which rose 19.3% to $139.7 billion – the slowest pace in 20 months. This comes as China’s government tries to tame steadily rising food and property prices by way of monetary tightening.

What’s more, the slowdown in imports can be attributed to the recent fall of certain commodity prices as investors worry about Europe’s debt crisis, says Todd Lee, global economics director with IHS Global Insight. It was just in March when rapidly rising prices for shipments of everything from oil to iron ore helped China unexpectedly post a $7.3 billion trade deficit. But in the past 11 weeks as Greece teetered on the edge of default, commodity prices have dropped. In June, Chinese imports of crude oil fell by $2.3 billion – mostly due to a 5% drop in global oil prices during the month.

Of course, the monthly statistics only tell part of the story. If we look at the bigger trend on a year-over-year basis, Chinese exports relative to imports have actually been declining.

China’s trade surplus reached $297 billion in 2008, but fell to $198 billion in 2009. It narrowed further in 2010 to $185 billion. Moody’s Analytics forecasts the surplus is on track to fall even more this year – pointing that it has reached $45 billion so far, compared with $56 billion over the same period last year.

And even though the U.S. Commerce Department reported today that the U.S. trade deficit reached its highest level in May in two and a half years, this shouldn’t be taken as reason to put further pressure on China to appreciate the yuan at a faster pace. After all, it would be sort of hypocritical. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out Monday, U.S. exports have gained in a big way with a weaker dollar. In 2010, U.S. goods and services sold abroad totaled $1.3 trillion, up significantly from $697 billion in 2002 when the greenback’s value began falling from its peak.