China’s forest cover has been increasing in the past three decades, which is in sharp contrast to rapid declines in other natural resources. Understanding the mechanisms of forest recovery and their effects is essential for sustaining forests in China and elsewhere. Some studies suggest that imports of forest products have contributed to the increase in forest cover of China and the decline in forest cover of exporting countries. However, it is not clear whether other countries beyond the exporting countries are affected. Using the framework of telecoupling (socioeconomic and environmental interactions over distances), we found that China’s forest cover increase is affected by multiple telecoupling processes (e.g. trade of food and forest products) and their interactions with each other and with other factors. The socioeconomic and environmental impacts of telecoupling processes go well beyond China and the exporting countries. As China’s demand for forest products and other ecosystem services such as food and water continues to rise, telecouplings will become even more important for sustainable forests, food security, water security, human well-being and environmental sustainability in the future. New and more effective policies are needed to minimise negative and enhance positive impacts of telecouplings on China and other countries around the world.