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China imports unexpectedly climb in August, export slump eases

China logged stronger-than-expected trade data in August as imports unexpectedly rose for the first time in nearly two years and the slump in exports abated, Reuters reported on Thursday, citing official data.

Exports in the world's second-largest economy fell 2.8 percent in dollar terms on-year following July's 4.4 percent drop and beating Reuters expectations for a 4 percent decline.

Imports unexpectedly rose 1.5 percent on-year, reversing a 12.5 percent fall in July and coming in better than Reuters' estimated 4.9 percent fall. August's increase was the first on-year rise in imports in dollar-denominated terms since October 2014.

A Chinese hostess walks beside imported boxes of cigarettes at the duty free of Beijing Airport, on April 30, 2016
FRED DUFOUR | AFP | Getty Images

That brought a trade surplus of $52.05 billion, slightly below July's $52.31 billion, which was a seven-month high, and missing estimates for $58 billion.

The Australian dollar, considered a proxy for China's economy, edged up to $0.7683 against the greenback, from $0.7677 ahead of the data.

Mainland and Hong Kong equity markets were little changed.

Despite the encouraging data, sluggish global demand will still weigh on China's export and manufacturing outlook, economists at ANZ said in a note.

"The PMI indicated that new export orders in August continued to stay contractionary, albeit with a slight improvement. The latest U.S. ISM data also disappointed by a large margin," ANZ said.

Moreover, Thursday's data may be revealing a lag-effect, Sadiq Currimbhoy, global investment strategist at Maybank Kim Eng, told CNBC's Street Signs.

The property market, nearly 8 percent of the economy from a gross domestic product (GDP) perspective, has been growing but that hasn't translated to a sustained improvement in imports, he warned. "It's been a concentrated impact to certain parts of the consumer cyclical sector [such as auto-sales], we're concerned about that."

He expects to see better trade numbers over the next few months given the strength of the property market.

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But Thursday's data could be a bright spot for global trade amid current woes about protectionism, the downfall of South Korea's Hanjin Shipping and stalled progress on agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

The World Trade Organization anticipates global trade to register its fifth straight year of sub-3 percent growth, citing lower trade value on the back of shifting exchange rates and falls in commodity prices.

China's appetite for goods and services greatly influences trade flows so greater import demand can help reinvigorate global exports.

Thursday's report was one of many China data points on tap this week.

On Wednesday, Beijing reported August FX reserves fell to $3.185 trillion, their lowest level since 2011. Meanwhile, consumer price inflation (CPI) and producer price inflation (PPI) data for August are due Friday.

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