In November, China imported no iron ore, coal or lead from North Korea, the second full month of the United Nations trade sanctions.
"Export prospects remain solid, given our outlook for growth globally, although more forceful USA trade restrictions on China's exports remain a key risk, following another rise in the U.S.' bilateral trade deficit in 2017", he said. Prices were around 5,500 yuan ($848.44) per tonne this week, off 45 percent from peaks seen in late December.
Imports for the whole of 2017 jumped 27 percent from 2016 to a record of 68.57 million tonnes. "In contrast, import growth slowed sharply, raising questions over the state of domestic demand", Julian Evans-Pritchard, an analyst with research firm Capital Economics in Singapore, said in a note. That was down 12 percent from November's 9.01 million bpd, the second-highest level on record.
Experts say they fear the situation could deteriorate this year, though.
Yuan-denominated imports rose 18.7 percent a year ago, which produced a trade surplus of 2.87 trillion yuan.
"Given no big surge in fuel exports and mild stock builds in strategic (crude oil) reserves, the crude data points to under-estimates in domestic fuel productions", Tee said.
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Declining oil output at home also contributed to the demand for overseas purchases.
"The record high trade surplus is likely to lead to more trade disputes between China and the US", said Tommy Xie, an economist at Singaporean bank OCBC.
Beijing has successfully fended off Trump's campaign rhetoric by making trade concessions, further opening up China's financial markets and signing US$250 billion worth of deals with the U.S. during the president's Beijing visit in November.
China's exports to North Korea in December declined 23.4 percent from a year earlier to $260 million, Huang told reporters.
December oil products exports hit a record 6.17 million tonnes, as refiners churned out more fuel than the country could absorb.
The rush to export over the last two months of 2017 was spurred by additional quotas from the government.