BEIJING (Reuters) - China swung to a surprise trade surplus of $$5.35 billion in March as exports grew faster than expected and import growth eased from a 13-month peak, customs data showed on Tuesday.
Import and export growth were both down sharply from February's Lunar New Year distorted surge, and within sight of the government's target of 10 percent expansion for 2012.
The data reinforced the view of most analysts that China's trade-sensitive economy is set for a soft landing, with GDP growth likely to have eased for a fifth successive quarter to 8.3 percent in the first three months of 2012 and remaining on course for its slowest year of expansion in a decade.
"The trade data looks okay... it shows the global economy is recovering, albeit slowly," said Zhou Hao, an economist with ANZ Bank in shanghai.
"Given that China had a trade surplus in the first quarter versus a deficit in the Q1 last year, it indicates a positive contribution to GDP growth. We reckon Q1 GDP growth should be 8.6 percent. I think the market is a bit too pessimistic about China's economy."
Import growth of 5.3 percent in March compared with economists' expectations of 9.0 percent and February's 39.6 percent growth, while export growth of 8.9 percent compared with a consensus call for 7.2 percent, still a marked easing from February's 18.4 percent rate.
The two numbers left the overall trade balance in surplus, reversing February's $31.5 billion run of red ink on the balance of payments and confounding market expectations of a $1.3 billion deficit.
But despite the unexpected return to surplus, the relatively slack pace of export growth may still concern investors who believe the risks of recession in the debt-ridden European Union -- China's top export market -- could be a dangerous drag on growth in the world's number 2 economy.
March data provided the first hard economic numbers of the year not distorted by the impact of the Lunar New Year holiday that fell in January this year, causing considerable skew in comparisons with the February 2011 holiday.
China's data releases build to a crescendo through the week with first quarter GDP numbers expected to be published on Friday and forecast to show the slowest quarter of growth in nearly three years.
Inflation data published on Monday kept the government on stand-by to deliver more growth-oriented policies, with a trend of easing consumer costs in the first quarter confirmed while producer prices revealed risks to the industrial sector recovery.
The People's Bank of China has cut the proportion of deposits banks must keep as reserves by 100 basis points in two moves since autumn 2011 in a bid to keep credit growing in the face of a recent slowdown of foreign capital inflows, which had underpinned money supply growth for much of the last decade.
Reporting by Nick Edwards; Editing by Alex Richardson