Mainland exports growth last month slowed unexpectedly as shipments to Europe and the United States fell amid fading holiday demand, adding more uncertainty to China's economic outlook.
The sharper-than-expected slowdown in export growth and flatlining import expansion could prompt Beijing to maintain policies to support growth even after the healthy industrial production and investment data released on Sunday boosted confidence in the economy, economists say.
Customs bureau data yesterday showed exports last month climbed 2.9 per cent from a year earlier, sharply below the 11.6 per cent growth in October and 9.9 per cent in September.
Imports were unchanged, after rising 2.4 per cent in October, as commodity prices fell and excess capacity in some industries capped demand.
As a result, the trade surplus narrowed significantly to US$19.6 billion, compared with US$32.1 billion in October.
Citigroup said the islands row might have hurt Chinese demand for goods from Japan as imports from Japan fell 15 per cent in November, after declining 10.2 per cent in October.
"With the seasonal boost from pre-Christmas orders fast fading, shipments to the West will likely stay soft [if not worsen] into next year," HSBC's economists said.
"Lacklustre exports pose the biggest downside risk to China's ongoing recovery. As such, we expect Beijing to maintain its accommodative policy stance in the coming quarters."
Exports to the European Union fell 18 per cent in November from a year earlier, while those to the US fell 2.6 per cent after rising 9 per cent in October.
The slowing trend was in contrast to robust growth in industrial production, which accelerated to 10.1 per cent last month from a year earlier, after a year-on-year growth of 9.6 per cent in October.
ANZ economists Liu Ligang and Zhou Hao said the trade data "appears to be a return to the reality" and questioned the accuracy of the robust export data reported in September and October. They indicated that political factors might have pushed up the numbers.
"Speculation abounds that the recent surge in activities in and out of the bonded duty-free zones is largely encouraged by local governments cooking up their export figures ahead of the 18th party congress," they said.
They forecast exports will grow 8 per cent and imports expand 5 per cent this year, with the trade surplus reaching US$220 billion compared with US$158 billion last year.
Mizuho Securities also maintained that the weak trade data "reveals the true nature of the trade situation". It forecast China's exports will expand by less than 6 per cent next year, after the European Central Bank said the euro-area would shrink by 0.3 per cent next year and the US grapples with the fiscal cliff.