However, Beijing's export data had been surprisingly resilient to tariffs for much of 2018, possibly because companies ramped up shipments before broader and stiffer U.S. duties went into effect. An alarming point in the latest Chinese trade data was a slowdown in the country's exports in December, shrinking by 4.5 percent to $221.2 billion, while imports declined 7.2 percent to $164.2 billion.
Pang noted Chinese imports of more advanced technology for use in manufacturing smartphones and other higher-technology products declined 14.9 percent in December, almost double the size of the contraction in overall trade. Import growth declined to 12.9 per cent from the previous year's 15.9 percent.
Analysts had expected export growth to slow to 3 per cent with imports up 5 per cent.
"A trade recession is likely, in our view", Raymond Yeung, chief economist at ANZ, said in a note, predicting a period of export contraction similar to 2015-16.
"We're doing very well with China", Trump told reporters at the White House. "For example, big Japanese airlines bought heavily from USA aircraft producers", he said during a speech at the Centre for China and Globalisation in Beijing. China's surplus is the U.S.'s trade deficit. China has retaliated with tariffs of its own. But a deal for "a more lasting suspension of new tariffs" looks more likely.
While the surplus with the US may have risen, last year's overall Chinese trade surplus was the lowest since 2013, even though export growth was the highest since 2011, according to Reuters' records.
Additionally, supplies appear to have cleared more slowly through ports, said Shanghai JC Intelligence's Tu, while domestic demand has also been weak, with soymeal alternatives in the market increasing.
China's annual passenger vehicle sales fell last year for the first time in more than 20 years, as the trade war with the U.S. rocked consumer confidence and Beijing reined in auto financing channels.
China's trade growth slowed in 2018 as a tariff battle with Washington heated up and global consumer demand weakened.
But a slew of bad economic data has added to concerns about China's economy, which is expected to have eased to around 6.5 per cent growth in 2018, down from 6.9 per cent in 2017.