January 12, 2018 12:57 pm JST  (Updated January 12, 2018 1:52 pm JST)

China 2017 trade surplus with US tops $275bn to record high

December's overall import growth weakest in a year

China's overall trade surplus declined while its surplus with the U.S. reached an all-time high in 2017.

BEIJING (Reuters) -- China's exports and imports growth slowed in December after unexpectedly surging in the previous month, adding to signs of ebbing economic growth as the government extends a crackdown on financial risks and factory pollution.

December exports rose 10.9 percent from a year earlier, beating analysts' forecast of a 9.1 percent increase, but cooling from a robust 12.3 percent gain in November, official data showed on Friday.

Imports grew an even slower pace of 4.5 percent year-on-year in December, the General Administration of Customs said, which was the weakest since they rose 3.1 percent in December 2016. Imports missed analysts' forecast of 13.0 percent growth and were a sharp decrease from the 17.7 percent rise in the previous month.

That left the country with a trade surplus of $54 billion for the month, the highest since January 2016.

Economists had expected China's trade surplus to have narrowed to $37 billion in December from November's $40.21 billion.

China and many trade-dependent countries have benefited from a year-long global exports boom that many economists expect will extend well into this year.

China's exports for the full year rose 7.9 percent, the fastest rate since 2013, while imports gained 15.9 percent, the best since 2011.

But weaker growth in December reinforced evidence of slowing momentum in the world's second-biggest economy, as the government's intensified war on pollution and a crackdown on debt risks weigh on activity.

"Although the trade data are often volatile, this latest decline (in import volumes)...is a sign that domestic demand may have weakened at the end of last year," Capital Economics Senior China Economist Julian Evans-Pritchard wrote in a note.

The trade data also showed China's goods surplus with the U.S., a sore spot in relations between the two nations, hit a record high last year.

China's 2017 surplus with the United States was $275.81 billion, topping the previous record in 2015 of $260.8 billion. China's December trade surplus with the U.S. was $25.55 billion, compared to $27.87 billion in November.

China's excess production capacity has emerged as a major trade irritant for the world's leading economic powers, prompting them to consider new steps to protect domestic industries and jobs from a flood of Chinese imports.

The Trump administration is also considering several unilateral tariff actions on steel, aluminium and China's intellectual property practices likely to draw disputes from WTO members.

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