BEIJING, March 8 (Reuters) - China posted its first monthly trade deficit in three years in February as imports surged at their fastest pace since early 2012, driven by its strong demand for commodities from iron ore to crude oil and coal.
China's February exports unexpectedly fell 1.3 percent from a year earlier, but imports expanded 38.1 percent, well above economists' forecasts, customs data showed on Wednesday.
That left the country with a trade deficit of $9.15 billion for the month, the General Administration of Customs said.
But China watchers have cautioned that trends in January and February can be distorted by the long Lunar New Year holidays, with business slowing down weeks ahead of time and many firms scaling back operations or closing.
The holiday began in late January this year and in February last year.
China's exports for January and February combined rose 4.0 percent from the same period last year, while imports surged 26.4 percent, suggesting there has been solid improvement in demand at home and abroad despite any holiday distortions.
Analysts polled by Reuters had expected February exports from the world's largest exporter to have risen 12.3 percent, an improvement from a 7.9 percent rise in January.
Imports had been expected to rise 20 percent, after growing 16.7 percent in January.
Analysts had expected China's trade surplus to fall to $25.75 billion in February, versus January's $51.35 billion, with growing attention on its large trade advantage with the United States as new U.S. President Donald Trump ramps up his protectionist rhetoric. (Reporting by Sue-Lin Wong; Editing by Kim Coghill)