* Strong demand usually buoys December, January imports
* But some fear future spillover from U.S. trade tensions (Adds comment, industry context)
BEIJING, Feb 8 (Reuters) - China's imports of soybeans in January grew 11 percent from the same month a year earlier, customs data showed on Thursday, as crushers in the world's top soy buyer looked to meet expected healthy demand for soymeal from the hog sector.
But while January's imports <SB-CN-IMP> of 8.48 million tonnes were up on last year's 7.655 million tonnes, they were below December's 9.547 million tonnes. Sector watchers said some cargoes may have been delayed after Beijing toughened soybean import specifications amid rising Sino-U.S. trade tension.
"Some cargoes delayed earlier by the tightened specifications on GMO (genetically modified) imports may have just arrived in January," said Tian Hao, senior analyst with First Futures. "Usually in December and January, arrivals are large in volume as demand is strong."
China buys 60 percent of the soybeans traded worldwide, mainly from Brazil and the United States, to crush into soymeal used in animal feed.
It beefed up regulations on imports of genetically modified (GMO) soybeans late last year, reducing the amount of foreign material allowed in shipments of U.S. soybeans as of Jan. 1.
Those tougher rules and seasonally weak demand after the Lunar New Year holiday, which starts on Feb. 15, are expected to push China's soybean imports down to around 5 million tonnes in February and March, analysts said.
Though they fell into negative territory this week, crush margins <JCI-SBMG-SHDNI> have remained healthy since August.
Beijing launched an anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigation into U.S. sorghum imports earlier in February, amid rising trade tension between the two powers, fuelling industry concerns that soybeans might be caught up in trade action. (Reporting by Hallie Gu and Josephine Mason; Editing by Joseph Radford and Kenneth Maxwell)