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METALS-Copper prices head towards two-month highs after China data

Pratima Desai

* GRAPHIC-2019 asset returns:

* Market watching U.S.-China trade talks (Recasts, adds comment, changes dateline from BEIJING)

LONDON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Copper prices climbed on Thursday towards two-month highs hit last week as import data from top consumer China suggested robust demand, while markets awaited the outcome of high-level Sino-U.S. trade talks in Beijing.

Benchmark copper on the London Metal Exchange was up 0.8 percent at $6,174 a tonne at 1054 GMT. The price of the metal used as a gauge of economic health has gained 7 percent since early January.

China's unwrought copper imports came in at 479,000 tonnes last month. That was up 14 percent from 420,000 tonnes in December and up 8.9 percent from 440,000 tonnes in January 2018, reaching the highest level since September.

Overall, China's exports rose in January after a shock decline in December, while imports fell less than expected, but analysts said the strength was likely due to seasonal factors and predicted renewed trade weakness ahead.

"The Chinese economy is slowing down, people want to know the magnitude of that. They are waiting to see data on key areas such as credit growth and infrastructure spending," said Philippos Kassimatis, partner at cross-asset advisory firm Maven Global.

U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of imports from China are scheduled to rise to 25 percent from 10 percent if the two sides fail to reach a deal by a March 1 deadline.

"Trade talks and the macro environment are focus points, so clearly the announcement that (U.S. President Donald) Trump was considering delaying the March 1 deadline by 60 days should have a positive impact."

TRADE: Trade discussions in Beijing moved to a higher level in a push to de-escalate a tariff war ahead of the deadline.

"If you get a structural shift in the market due to a positive or negative outcome of the trade talks over the next few weeks, then momentum and volumes can pick up as CTAs will start increasing positions," Kassimatis said.

CTAs or commodity trading advisors use buy and sell signals from numerical models to make trading decisions.

CHINA: "Our base case reflects a soft landing in China, which is sufficient to support global demand growth at 1.6 percent including China at 1.5 percent," Morgan Stanley analysts said in a note.

"However, downside risk is limited zero demand growth would result in a balanced market. Given restricted supply growth, demand would have to turn negative before a significant surplus would emerge."

SPREAD: The discount for the cash against the three-month copper contract has narrowed to zero from $8 a tonne on Wednesday. One company's holding of between 50 and 79 percent of LME copper warrants has fueled worry about tight supply.

PRICES: Aluminium slipped 0.5 percent to $1,851, zinc gained 0.7 percent to $2,616, lead rose 0.6 percent to $2,033, tin fell 0.2 percent to $21,060 and nickel rose 0.2 percent to $12,425 a tonne.

(Additional reporting by Tom Daly; Editing by Dale Hudson)