Chinese firms' efforts to sell to the West are suffering from the effects of the eurozone debt crisis and weak economic recovery in the United States.
China swung into a huge trade deficit of $31.48 billion in February as oil imports rocketed, customs data showed on March 10.
China is normally a net exporter of goods -- it recorded a surplus of $27.28 billion in January -- but total monthly imports rose 39.6% year-on-year to $145.96 billion, with exports only going up 18.4% to $114.47 billion.
The deficit was the largest for at least 12 years, according to Dow Jones Newswires, and far in excess of the median forecast of $8.5 billion among 15 economists it had surveyed. Analysts had expected a deficit as imports recovered from temporary disruption after the unusually early Lunar New Year in January, but they had predicted a larger rise in exports and a smaller increase in imports.
During the first two months of the year trade volumes with Russia jumped 31.9% to $13.51 billion and with Brazil they went up 10.6% to $11.54, indicating growing trade among the BRICs group of emerging nations.
China's biggest trading partner remains the European Union, with $79.8 billion in two-way trade in January and February, up 4.7% Next was the U.S., at $66.05 billion, up 9.2%.
China's trade figures are politically sensitive, with Beijing and Washington embroiled in a long-running dispute over the value of the yuan, which US politicians say is kept artificially low to unfairly help Chinese exporters. But Chinese firms' efforts to sell to the West are suffering from the effects of the eurozone debt crisis and weak economic recovery in the United States.
The customs data showed that the energy-hungry country's crude oil imports reached a record monthly high at 23.64 million tons, equivalent to 5.98 million barrels a day.
The figures came after statistics on March 9 showed China's inflation rate slowing sharply in February and factory output growth also slipping, potentially giving authorities more room to take easing measures.
"Overall, economic conditions are getting weaker at a fast pace," said Nomura economist Zhiwei Zhang. "The slowdown is happening faster than the government expected."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2012