Mainland exports surged in December on a year-end rush on shipments and they are likely to get support from a gradual recovery in global economies this year.
Analysts expect external demand will probably improve mildly this year. However, huge volatility in the country's trade performance in recent months and persistent uncertainties in economic outlook in the West held them back from predicting a strong recovery.
Exports jumped 14.1 per cent last month from a year earlier, a seven-month high and beating market forecasts for an increase of about 5 per cent. The gains were also faster than November's 2.9 per cent growth, customs bureau spokesman Zheng Yuesheng said yesterday.
As domestic demand picked up, imports also unexpectedly grew 6 per cent after showing no gain in November.
For the full year, exports climbed 7.9 per cent to US$2.05 trillion, still notably slower than the 20 per cent growth in 2011. Imports advanced 4.3 per cent to US$1.82 trillion. Trade surplus soared 48 per cent to US$231.1 billion from a year earlier.
HSBC economists Qu Hongbin and Sun Junwei attributed the export rebound last month to stronger than expected US data before the recent fiscal cliff negotiations, stabilisation of European growth and improved output in emerging markets.
However, their view of "persisting external headwinds and uncertainties" has barely changed. "We believe that an exports growth rate around the single-digit to lower-teen levels will likely become custom in the coming quarters," they said.
Australia & New Zealand Bank said the strong export figure might indicate better than expected gross domestic product growth in the fourth quarter. The GDP and other key economic data are due to be released on January 18.
The United States replaced the European Union as China's biggest export market last year, although the EU remains its largest trade partner.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations ranked the third largest in trade with mainland China, followed by Hong Kong in fourth place, replacing Japan, whose island sovereignty disputes with mainland China trimmed bilateral trade by 3.9 per cent last year from 2011.
Zheng said the mainland's value of exports and imports grew 6.2 per cent last year, shy of the official target of 10 per cent but still "the world's best" among major economies.
Factors weighing on trade included weak external demand, rising domestic labour costs, yuan appreciation, global trade protectionism and slowing domestic economy, he said.
Trade growth might "improve slightly" this year, partly because stimulus policies in the West would likely curb a further global downturn, he said.
Thanks to falling prices, the quantity of iron ore imported by the mainland rose 8.4 per cent to 740 million tonnes last year. The country also imported 6.8 per cent more crude oil and 29.8 per cent more coal, Zheng said. But energy and resources prices might rise this year due to quantitative easing policies adopted in developed nations, he said.