The largest container ship in the world, CSCL Globe, docks at the port of Felixstowe in south east England. Photo:  Reuters/Toby Melville/File Photo
The largest container ship in the world, CSCL Globe, docks at the port of Felixstowe in south east England. Photo: Reuters/Toby Melville/File Photo

China reported better-than-expected trade data for January as demand picked up both at home and abroad, an encouraging start to 2017 for the world’s largest trading nation even as Asia’s exporters brace for a rise in US protectionism.

January exports rose 7.9% from a year earlier as global demand perked up, while imports expanded 16.7% on improved domestic appetite for coal, crude oil and iron ore, preliminary data from customs showed on Friday.

That left the country with a initial trade surplus of US$51.35 billion for the month, the General Administration of Customs said.

Customs is due to release updated data for trade on February 23.

China watchers caution 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 early February last year.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected January shipments to rise 3.3% after a dismal 2016 that saw exports slump 7.7% due to stubbornly weak global demand.

Imports had been forecast to rise 10%, accelerating from 3.1% growth in December.

Analysts were expecting China’s trade surplus to have risen to US$47.90 billion in January, versus December’s US$40.71 billion, with growing attention on its large trade surplus with the United States as new US President Donald Trump ramps up his protectionist rhetoric.

While China’s exports fell the most last year since 2009, other major Asian exporters have seen a rebound in recent months, due largely to stronger electronics shipments and higher prices for oil products such a gasoline and petrochemicals.

Taiwan’s January exports rose 7% year on year, the fourth straight month of gains, while Korea’s gained 11.2%.

China’s exports to the United States rose 6.2% in January compared to a year earlier. The US is China’s largest export market, accounting for 18.5% of its total exports.

China’s imports from the US rose 23.4%.

China’s trade surplus with the US was US$21.37 billion in January, down from US$21.73 billion in December 2016, according to data from China’s customs bureau.

The surplus decreased US$20.1 billion to US$347 billion in 2016, the US Commerce Department said Tuesday.

Chinese data showed a smaller overall surplus but the narrowing trend was similar.

Still, by either measure it remained well above the sustained trade surplus of more than US$20 billion that is one of three criteria used by the US Treasury to designate another country as a currency manipulator.

Trump has not made good yet on his campaign pledges of greater protectionist measures in the early days of his presidency, but analysts say the specter of deteriorating US-China trade and political ties is likely to weigh on confidence of exporters and investors worldwide.

US tariffs looming. A worker stands near a stainless steel product line at a factory in Dalian, Liaoning province. Photo: Reuters/China Daily

The United States is close to slapping duties on imports of stainless steel from China after having issued a final determination this month that the products were being subsidised and dumped in the US market at below fair value.

China’s total trade surplus narrowed in 2016 to US$510.7 billion.

Prolonged weakness in exports has forced China’s government to rely on higher spending and massive bank lending to boost the economy, at the risk of adding to a huge pile of debt, which some analysts warn is nearing danger levels.