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* April exports rise 9.4 pct y/y; imports surge 23.5 pct y/y
* Exports to U.S. and China stay solid, but slow from March
* Jump in imports narrows April trade surplus to $2.78 bln
By Liang-Sa Loh and J.R. Wu
TAIPEI, May 8 (Reuters) - Taiwan's exports in April grew for the seventh straight month, as expected, but a sharp rise in imports raises the prospect of stronger shipments ahead for the trade-reliant economy.
Exports rose 9.4 percent from a year earlier, slowing from a 13.2 percent gain in March, and was broadly in line with the 9.9 percent increase forecast in a Reuters poll.
Imports jumped 23.5 percent, faster than 16.85 percent forecast in the poll, bolstered by agricultural raw materials, including crude oil, finance ministry data showed on Monday.
"The surge in imports reflects optimism in exports by factories," said Beatrice Tsai, an official with Taiwan's finance ministry.
The jump in imports narrowed Taiwan's trade surplus to $2.78 billion, its smallest since November 2015.
Shipments to major markets slowed, but remained solid in April.
Exports to China and the United States, both key markets, in April rose a respective 10.3 percent and 7.6 percent from a year earlier, although both declined from their March pace, the data showed.
Exports of its main technology-related goods also showed strong double-digit on-year percent gains in April, the data showed.
Taiwan's trade surplus with the United States totaled $1.018 billion for the first four months of this year, after coming in at $440 million in April, the ministry said, staying well below one of the thresholds that might trigger punitive trade talks by Washington.
Last month, the U.S. Treasury, in a key semi-annual report on practices of U.S. trading partners, kept Taiwan on its watch list as a possible currency manipulator.
It said that the island's intervention in the forex market also fell below its red line threshold for that criteria, but that the improvement needed to be lasting to get off the watch list.
The Taiwan dollar remains the best performing currency in Asia so far this year, up just over 7 percent.
Despite the strong local dollar, Taiwan is coming off a solid first quarter after the economy grew for the fourth straight quarter in a row.
The 2.56 percent annual economic expansion in the first three months has been underpinned by solid March export orders, a leading indicator of actual exports, even after Apple Inc posted a surprise dip in its iPhone sales in its second quarter ended April 1.
The surprise fall in its signature smartphones, packed with parts made by Taiwanese tech companies, showed that customers may have held back purchases in anticipation of the 10th-anniversary edition of the company's most important product later this year.
Editing by Jacqueline Wong