By Rene Wagner and Michael Nienaber
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 good news for 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 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," said Anton Boerner, head of the BGA trade association.
The main reason for the reduced trade volume with the U.S. was a drop in American exports to Germany, Boerner added.
Neighboring 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 had climbed to the top of the list of Germany's most important trading partners, overtaking France for the first time since 1961.
Separately, Germany's Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations said on Friday it expected exports to Russia will probably rise at least 5 percent this year, their first increase in years given Western sanctions.
"Optimism among German exporters is rising further," said Clemens Fuest, head of the Ifo economic institute.
He said export expectations increased in February, pointing to overall strong trade figures in the first quarter of 2017.
"MADE IN GERMANY"
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.
($1 = 0.9483 euros)
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)