The sharp December imports slowdown, however, is raising concerns that the world's second-biggest economy faces domestic-demand pressure as authorities turn off cheap credit and restrict speculative financing.
China's exports to North Korea in December declined 23.4 percent from a year earlier to $260 million, Huang told reporters. They had boomed 17.7 per cent in the previous month. His administration has slapped anti-dumping tariffs on a range of Chinese imports, such as aluminum and steel, and toughened its stance on Chinese investment in the U.S.
Huang Songping, a spokesman for the customs agency, said China would find it hard to maintain double-digit foreign trade growth this year.
Commodities imports were mixed, with copper purchases down 8.2 per cent year-on-year by volume in December while coal and natural gas imports were up. For the year, it was US$275.8 billion. Imports for the full year were 4.69 million tonnes, the lowest since 2013, customs said, after a weak first half.
Economists had expected China's trade surplus to have narrowed to $37 billion in December from November's $40.21 billion.
On the monetary policy front, most analysts expect subdued inflation expectations to keep the People's Bank of China from tightening too hard.
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Strength in Chinese exports "is bound to add to US-China trade tensions", Kuijs said.
Chinese private enterprises played a bigger role in trade past year, edging up 0.4 percentage points in its share of total trade compared with that in 2016.
U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly signaled tougher action on what he calls unfair practices that have lead to a massive trade deficit with China.
"As the global economy continues to recover and the Chinese economy turns to steady and sound growth, China's foreign trade outlook in 2018 is upbeat".
In November, China stopped exporting oil products to North Korea, after the U.N. Security Council that month imposed new caps on trade with North Korea, including limiting oil product shipments.