Containers to be shipped abroad at the Port of Lianyungang in East China's Jiangsu province. Photo: AFP
Officials in Europe have been calling for China to open its doors to trade for many years. Here, containers are seen at a port in East China's Jiangsu province. Photo: AFP

Whichever way you look at it, China’s trade figures for February were horrid.

Last month, dollar-denominated exports plunged 20.7% compared to the same period last year while imports dropped 5.2%, official data released by the General Administration of Customs revealed on Friday.

The trade balance also narrowed dramatically to US$4.12 billion from January’s figure of $39.16 billion. Another key stat showed that the politically-sensitive trade surplus with the United States dipped sharply to $14.72 billion from $27.3 billion a month earlier.

While at first glance the numbers resembled a train wreck, analysts warned that the data was distorted by the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, which started in early February.

Even so, the depth of the slowdown has illustrated the effects of the trade war with the United States and the cooling economic environment in the 28 nations which make up the European Union.

“It is fairer to look at the January and February data together, which posted a less than 5% drop with last year,” Tommy Xie, an economist at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation in Singapore, said. “That reflected the impact of the trade war and also a slowing global economy.”

Signs that Beijing and Washington are moving towards a deal would certainly add impetus to China’ sluggish manufacturing sector.

But a general global downturn will only add to headwinds buffeting the country after a pessimistic update earlier this week from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“Today’s trade figures reinforce our view that China’s trade recession has started to emerge,” Raymond Yeung, the senior economist at ANZ, said. “Looking ahead, we find little reason to expect a rebound in the near term.”

Analysts have been warning of an impending slump in Chinese exports, despite strong figures last year. Manufacturing confidence has dipped in the past three months while consumer spending has been sluggish.

“The upshot is that today’s downbeat data provide further evidence that global demand is cooling and remains consistent with subdued domestic demand,” Julian Evans-Pritchard, a senior China economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note.

“A row back in US tariffs would provide a mild boost to exports but not enough to offset the broader external headwinds,” he added.

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