The January export figures could be a precursor to frictions with Washington as US President Donald Trump accused Beijing of currency manipulation to give Chinese exporters a trade advantage, while he also threatened to impose huge tariffs on Chinese imports.
Exports of Chinese merchandise jumped 7.9 per cent in January compared with a year earlier in dollar terms, beating the Bloomberg consensus of 3.2 per cent.
That led to a monthly trade surplus of 354.53 billion yuan, down 2.7 percent from a year earlier. The imports were down from December's record 8.57 million bpd.
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.
Imports had been forecast to rise 10.0 percent, accelerating from 3.1 percent growth in December.
In volume terms, imports of iron ore also surged by 12 percent year-on-year in January following a temporary contraction in December.
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Imports in China went up 16.7 percent in January, while exports rose 7.9 percent last month.
China's foreign trade figures were up in the first month of 2017, with total volume growing almost 20 percent since past year to US$482.2 billion.
But Nomura analysts said it can also be explained by a weakened yuan, which has made Chinese exports more affordable. The U.S.is China's largest export market, accounting for 18.5 percent of its total exports. The Lunar New Year period in 2017 began in late January.
"We believe China's exports are benefiting from the depreciation of the RMB's real effective exchange rate [REER] over previous quarters".
"China's trade data is going to be pretty good in the first part of this year because of the very good run that we had in the last part of 2016", said Mr Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics in Hong Kong. But the country was still a net exporter for the month.