China may run a trade deficit by 2023, top economist suggests

Chinese employees work in a high-end leather goods factory in Chengdu Sichuan Province China on November 21. File

Exports rose 7.9 per cent for the year, while imports increased 15.9 per cent in dollar terms, data from the General Administration of Customs showed.

China's exports to North Korea rose 8.3% in 2017 from a year earlier, at $3.34 billion, official data showed Friday.

Imports grew 4.5% year-on-year in the month to $177.1 billion, slowing from a rise of 17.7% in November and the lowest reading in a year, according to the customs data.

In November, China imported no iron ore, coal or lead from North Korea, the second full month of the United Nations trade sanctions.

Chinese private enterprises played a bigger role in trade previous year, edging up 0.4 percentage points in its share of total trade compared with that in 2016.

"Export prospects remain solid, given our outlook for growth globally, although more forceful USA trade restrictions on China's exports remain a key risk, following another rise in the U.S.' bilateral trade deficit in 2017", he said.

Helping to explain the significant increase in the headline trade figure, export growth topped expectations while import growth decelerated sharply.

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"We have long since expected China's domestic demand and imports to slow in 2018 on gradually tighter monetary and financial policies, and slower real estate activity", Kuijs said. Iron ore imports for the year hit a record high of 1.075 billion tonnes.

The import slowdown caused China's December trade surplus to surge to $54-billion, the highest since January 2016, compared to forecasts for a $37-billion surplus in December from November's $40.21-billion.

Economists say rising trade friction is a key risk for China.

"The record high trade surplus is likely to lead to more trade disputes between China and the USA", said Tommy Xie, an economist at Singaporean bank OCBC.

In November, China stopped exporting oil products to North Korea, after the U.N. Security Council that month imposed new caps on trade with North Korea, including limiting oil product shipments.

The Trump administration is also considering several unilateral tariff actions on steel, aluminium and China's intellectual property practices likely to draw disputes from WTO members.

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