China returns to trade surplus in March

China on Tuesday posted a trade surplus for March, reversing a massive deficit from the previous month, but data showed exports were still weak owing to the economic woes in major overseas markets.

The country recorded a trade surplus of $5.35 billion for the month, as outward shipments rose 8.9 percent to $165.66 billion, Chinese customs said.

But it added that imports rose just 5.3 percent to $160.31 billion, indicating domestic consumption in the country of 1.3 billion people is flagging, amid concerns over a hard landing for the economy.

In February, China posted a huge deficit of $31.48 billion -- the largest in more than a decade -- as it felt the ripples from the debt crisis in Europe and the stuttering recovery in the United States.

Analysts had predicted a deficit of $3.2 billion for March, according to Dow Jones Newswires.

But while the figure was better than expected Liao Qun, China economist for Citic Bank International, told AFP: "The March surplus figure is relatively small as the deterioration in overseas markets since last year has continued to affect China's exports."

Exports to the European Union, China's largest trading partner, fell 1.8 percent in the first quarter while sales to the United States, its second biggest trading partner, rose 12.8 percent.

In the January-March period, China's politically sensitive trade surplus was just $670 million, although that is an improvement on the $1.02 billion deficit in the same period last year.

The figures will likely ease pressure on leaders to allow the yuan currency to appreciate more strongly.

Beijing and Washington have been embroiled in a long-running dispute over the value of the unit, which US politicians say is kept artificially low to help Chinese exporters, leading to a huge trade gap between the two.

"The small (first quarter) trade surplus appears to support the view that the (yuan) exchange rate is moving closer to its equilibrium value," ANZ said in a research note on Tuesday.

Analysts still widely expect China to record a trade surplus for the full year, helped by lower commodity prices and a recovery in exports, but much smaller than 2011.

Citic Bank is forecasting an annual trade surplus of around $100 billion this year.

Last year, the nation's surplus narrowed to $155.14 billion from $181.51 billion in 2010, according to official figures, and the country's continuing trade woes are expected to lead to a slowdown in the economy this year.

"China's overall exports have stabilised, but will only see an obvious rebound in the second half," said You Hongye, a macro-economy analyst at Essence Securities in Beijing.

"But imports will remain weak on declining domestic demand. China's economy will likely continue to slow down until it stabilises in the third quarter," he told AFP.

The weak imports figures will be worrying for the government, which is looking to shift its economy from one hugely dependent on exports to more domestic-oriented growth.

The government last month set a target for 7.5 percent economic growth for 2012, following 9.2 percent last year and 10.4 percent in 2010.

China is due to release first quarter growth data on Friday, as well as other economic indicators for March.

The central bank in February cut the amount of cash banks must hold in reserve for the second time in three months as policymakers moved to increase lending and boost domestic consumption due to the economic slowdown.

But analysts say worries over inflation, which rebounded to a higher-than-expected 3.6 percent in March, could slow government moves to further loosen monetary policy.

Chinese shares were down 1.09 percent in afternoon trade.

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