Exports fell 4.4 percent year-on-year to USD 221.2 billion in December, the most in two years, with demand in most of its major markets weakening. The figure came in below market consensus of a 3 percent gain and followed a 5.4 percent increase in November. Coal exports slumped 55.7 percent year-on-year to 0.31 million tonnes and sales of steel products dropped 2 percent to 5.56 million tonnes.
Imports dropped 7.6 percent from a year earlier to USD 164.2 billion in December, the most since July 2016, missing market expectations of a 5 percent growth and following a 3 percent advance in November. Soybean imports fell 40.1 percent year-on-year to 5.72 million tonnes as purchases from the US dropped due the higher tariffs. Also, imports declined for coal (-55.0 percent to 10.23 million tonnes), unwrought copper (-4.7 percent to 429,000 tonnes), and copper ores & concentrates (-11.3 percent to 1.46 million tonnes). On the other hand, imports of iron ore rose 3 percent to 86.65 million tonnes. Natural gas imports jumped 17 percent to hit an all-time high of 9.23 million tonnes, and crude oil imports were 43.78 million tonnes, an increase of 29.9 percent from a year earlier.
The trade surplus with the US, China's largest export market, narrowed to USD 29.87 billion in December from USD 35.55 billion in November. China exports to the US declined 3.5 percent in December while imports were down 35.8 percent for the month.
For full year 2018, China posted a trade surplus of USD 351.76 billion, the lowest since 2013, as exports increased 9.9 percent, its strongest performance in seven years, while imports were up 15.8 percent. China's aluminium exports rose 20.9 percent from a year earlier to a record high of 5.8 million tonnes, while soybean imports fell for the first time since 2011 because of the higher tariffs China levied on US supplies. In addition, coal imports rose to 281.5 million tonnes in 2018, the highest annually since 2014; and unwrought copper imports rose 12.9 percent to a record 5.3 million tonnes. Purchases of natural gas surged 31.9 percent and those of crude oil rose 10.1 percent. Meanwhile, iron ore imports fell for the first time since 2010. China's politically-sensitive surplus with the US widened 17.2 percent to USD 323.32 billion last year, the highest on record going back to 2006.
In yuan-denominated terms, China's trade surplus came in at CNY 394.99 billion in December, as exports edged up 0.2 percent, while imports went down 3.1 percent. Considering 2018 full year, the trade surplus narrowed 18.3 percent to CNY 2.33 trillion as exports rose 7.1 percent to CNY 16.42 trillion and imports 12.9 percent to CNY 14.09 trillion.