China sends us manufactured goods and we send them pieces of paper. No, I am not talking about US dollars or Treasury bills. We literally send them pieces of paper. Recycled paper is the biggest US export by ocean going container.
The list of biggest exporters and importers is here . Basically China and other high-export countries send us ocean going containers full of high value goods like TVs, cars, furniture etc, the stuff that gets sold at Walmart (the biggest importer). We send these shipping containers back filled with recycled paper which basically has little value. The Chinese turn the paper into cardboard so they can send us more cardboard boxes full of high-value goods. Pretty depressing huh?
We export lots of other high-value goods such as software, financial services etc. But not much in the way of tangible goods sent by ocean going container. Paper is pretty heavy though so many containers go back empty when ships hit their weight limit. Next time you want to take a trip to China, bribe some seaman to let you bum a ride in one of their empties.