BEIJING, March 8 (Xinhua) -- China's foreign trade retained robust growth in the first two months of the year, adding to signs of a stabilizing economy, customs data showed Wednesday.
Imports in yuan-denominated terms increased by 44.7 percent year-on-year last month, markedly higher than market expectations and the 25.2 percent growth in January, according to the General Administration of Customs (GAC).
Exports grew 4.2 percent, slowing from January's 15.9 percent. Total foreign trade reached 1.71 trillion yuan (nearly 250 billion U.S. dollars), up 21.9 percent year on year.
That led to a monthly trade deficit of 60.36 billion yuan, in contrast with a surplus of over 354 billion yuan in January. In the same period last year, China had a surplus of 180.5 billion yuan.
It was China's first deficit in the past three years.
Zhuang Rui, an economic professor of the University of International Business and Economics, attributed the soaring imports figure to commodity price hikes.
"China has for years bought huge amount of commodities to boost its domestic infrastructure, which, however, remained unnoticeable due to low global prices," she said.
GAC confirmed such remarks in an online statement showing steep rises in the value of imported primary commodities in January and February combined.
Imported coal has seen its price more than double from a year ago, with prices of iron ore up 83.7 percent and crude oil up 60.5 percent.
"Holiday factors also contributed to the deficit," said Zhong Yongjun, a researcher with the China Center for International Economic Exchange. "But the situation is not sustainable and the impact on the yuan's exchange rate will be limited."
Chinese exporters usually suspend or slash production during the week-long Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.
February's trade data generally continued the growth momentum since the beginning of the year. Both exports and imports rebounded significantly in January from a lackluster 2016.
In the first two months, exports increased 11 percent from a year ago, and imports jumped 34.2 percent.
China's foreign trade has seen a rosy start of the year, featuring recovering overseas markets, robust domestic demand and brightening outlook, GAC's head Yu Guangzhou said on the sidelines of the national legislature's annual session.
But analysts said it was still too early to make an optimistic final judgment as the strong year-on-year growth was mainly due to a low base last year.
"Data in the first two months are affected by seasonal factors, and China's trade situation will be more clearly reflected in the figures of the first quarter and first half," Zhuang said. "China still faces grim trade circumstance due to global uncertainties and sluggish external demand."
There are also looming concerns on rising trade protectionism in some countries. Chinese exporters suffered a record 119 trade remedy investigations initiated by 27 countries and regions last year, a 36.8 percent increase from 2015.
Fully aware of the risks, China has vowed to sharpen its trade edge, improving trade policies and moving the processing industry up the global value chain.
The government work report delivered by Premier Li Keqiang Sunday said China would ensure that foreign trade continues to pick up with policies to optimize imports and exports.
"The report indicated policymakers are paying more attention to trade quality instead of quantity," Zhang said.
China's new commerce minister Zhong Shan said the growth pattern in China's foreign trade would be adjusted from simply expanding the volume to improving structure and quality, pledging more effort to reinforce China's role as a big trading nation and push for its increasing trade prowess.
In the first two months, China's trade with the European Union jumped 15 percent from a year ago. The EU is China's biggest trade partner, accounting for 15 percent of the country's foreign trade. Trade with the United States, ASEAN and Japan went up by 18.9 percent, 24.2 percent and 20.1 percent, respectively.
In a products breakdown, machinery and electronics exports rose in the first two months, while labor-intensive industries of textiles and clothes saw shrinking orders.
China's advanced exports index continued its gaining streak to stand at 40.2 in February, up from 39 in January.