BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s exports unexpectedly surged at the fastest pace in three years in February, suggesting both its economy and global growth remain resilient even as trade relations with the United States rapidly deteriorate.
Trade tensions have jumped to the top of the list of risks facing China this year, with planned U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum signaling more measures may be on the way, Zhou Hao, senior emerging markets economist at Commerzbank, told the Reuters Global Markets Forum this week.
China’s February exports rose 44.5 percent from a year earlier, far more than analysts’ median forecast for a 13.6 percent increase and January’s 11.1 percent gain, official data showed on Thursday.
Imports grew 6.3 percent, missing forecasts for 9.7 percent growth and down from a sharper-than-expected 36.9 percent jump in January.
Analysts caution that Chinese data early in the year can be heavily distorted by the timing of the Lunar New Year holiday, which fell in February this year but in January in 2017.
But combined January-February data also showed a dramatic acceleration in export growth, good news for Beijing as it tries to crack down on risks in the financial system without sharply braking economic activity.
Exports rose 24.4 percent in Jan-Feb on-year, eclipsing 10.8 percent in December and up from single-digit growth in the same period last year. The gains came despite a much stronger yuan currency which is worrying the country’s exporters.
“The broad-based recovery in China’s major export markets could explain part of the reason why exports were still quite strong,” said Betty Wang, senior China economist at ANZ in Hong Kong.
But tension with the U.S. “is definitely a near-term concern and a near-term downside risk to China’s trade outlook,” she added.
China’s goods surplus with the United States, a sore spot in relations between the two nations, narrowed slightly last month but is higher so far this year than at the same point last year.
China’s trade surplus with the U.S. was $20.96 billion in February compared with $21.895 billion in January.
Boosted by a global trade boom, China’s exports last year grew the fastest since 2013 and served as one of the key drivers behind the economy’s forecast-beating 6.9 percent expansion.
But tough U.S. trade talk last year is now turning into action, clouding the outlook for a repeat performance.
President Donald Trump is expected to sign a proclamation on Thursday or Friday to establish the steel and aluminum tariffs, to counter cheap imports, especially from China, though close U.S. allies may get exemptions.
The measures are expected to go into effect in about two weeks, but economists see little immediate impact on China.
China has already reduced steel exports to the U.S. to a trickle in response to strong demand at home and U.S. anti-dupming duties, and while aluminum shipments account for around 10 percent of its global exports of the metal, the number is still small compared with China’s total exports, according to ING economist Iris Pang.
“All in all, the direct impact on China is minimal,” Pang said in a note published on Thursday.
While China’s global steel exports have dropped by almost a third this year, tariffs on aluminum may be an easier sell for Trump, as China’s shipments increased over 35 percent in the first two months of the year.
Over time, however, any additional punitive U.S. measures and retaliations by China or its other major trading partners would reduce global trade flows, disrupt international supply chains and drag on global growth.
China may be far more vulnerable to U.S. plans to combat intellectual property theft, which could hit its sales of hi-tech, high-value products. China’s global tech exports saw strong double-digit gains in the first two months of this year.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Thursday that China would make a necessary response in the event of a trade war with the U.S. but said such a war would only harm all sides.
“On paper, China has more to lose from a trade war – it exports far more to the U.S. than it imports,” Capital Economics said.
“But (for the U.S.) there are few alternative sources for the main products that it buys from China,” such as mobile phones, tablets and network equipment, it added.
At home, China’s domestic demand also appears solid, despite a cooling property market and rising borrowing costs that are expected to eventually rob the economy of some momentum.
While February import growth softened, it climbed 21.7 percent in the first two months of the year, compared with 4.5 percent in December. Imports of commodities again led the way, with steel mills replenishing inventories of iron ore ahead of the seasonal construction pick-up in spring.
China’s trade surplus widened to $33.74 billion for February, outperforming forecasts for $600 million and January’s $20.35 billion. For Jan-Feb combined, the surplus rose 43.6 percent from the year earlier period to $54.32 billion.
The strong trade performance suggests a possible upside surprise in China’s industrial output data next week and in economic growth for the first quarter as a whole. Analysts polled by Reuters earlier this year expected momentum to ease slightly to 6.6 percent this quarter from 6.8 percent late last year.
Premier Li Keqiang said Monday that China aims to expand its economy by around 6.5 percent in 2018, the same target that it beat handily in 2017.
Reporting by Lusha Zhang and Elias Glenn; Editing by Kim Coghill