On a global level, China's exports have grown by 9.9 percent past year, but the Asian country also marked a 15.8 percent growth in imports.
Total imports of soybeans fell 7.9% previous year to 88 million tonnes, the customs data showed. Imports also saw a shock drop, falling 7.6 per cent in their biggest decline since July 2016.
"Export growth dropped more than anticipated as global growth softened and the drag from USA tariffs intensified".
"The export growth print also suggests that the recent strength of the yuan might be short-lived; Beijing will perhaps be more eager to strike a trade deal with the United States; and that policymakers will need to take more aggressive measures to stabilise GDP growth".
"Overall economic growth slowed further in the fourth quarter and remains under pressure from weaker exports, slow credit growth and cooling real estate activity".
"Meanwhile, with policy easing unlikely to put a floor beneath domestic economic activity until the second half of this year, import growth is likely to remain subdued".
China's trade surplus with the United States rose to US$323.32 billion past year, the highest on record going back to 2006, Reuters calculations based on customs data showed on Monday.
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China's large trade surplus with the United States has always been a sore point with Washington, and is at the centre of a bitter dispute between the world's biggest economies. China has retaliated with tariffs of its own. That reflects the impact of Beijing's retaliatory tariffs and encouragement to importers to buy more from non-U.S. suppliers.
China's exports to the United States rose 11.3% a year ago, while imports from the USA only increased 0.7%.
But December's gloomy data seemed to suggest the USA front-loading effect has tapered off, and after several months of falling factory orders a further weakening in China's exports is widely expected in coming months.
Washington was threatening even higher tariffs before Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on a 90-day truce in December.
The data raises questions about the success of the trade war and increased tariffs imposed by US President Donald Trump against China in an attempt to reduce the US trade deficit. For all of 2018, soybeans, the second largest imports from the USA, fell for the first time since 2011.
Analysts said that with global growth set to cool further this year, exports will remain weak even if China can clinch a trade deal that rows back Trump's tariffs.
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