* Euro firms as ECB holds rates and offers no hints of future cuts * Sterling gains after BoE leaves rates unchanged * BOJ easing expectations keep pressure on yen * Technicals show Aussie vs dollar breaking above strong resistance By Julie Haviv NEW YORK, Jan 10 (Reuters) - The euro catapulted to an 18-month high against the yen and hit a one-week peak against the dollar on Thursday after the European Central Bank gave no indication it would cut rates, while robust Chinese export data assuaged concerns about global growth. The single currency shared by 17 countries rose for the first time in three sessions against the dollar as the ECB unanimously left interest rates unchanged at 0.75 percent. Market participants had been wary that ECB President Mario Draghi would signal rate cuts in the coming months, and when that did not happen, the euro's gains accelerated. "Mr. Draghi's normal tone of realism was replaced with a certain aura of optimism and giddiness," said Neal Gilbert, market strategist at GFT Forex, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "He smiled more, defended a potential recovery more, and overall appeared to feel proud of the work he had done." Draghi said euro zone economic weakness was expected to extend into 2013, but the region should gradually recover later in the year.. The euro was last up 1.4 percent at $1.3248 after hitting a session peak of $1.3266, its highest since Jan. 2. The euro has gained 0.4 percent since the start of the year. Investors also embraced the euro on raised hopes of a more robust recovery for the global economy this year after China, the world's second-largest economy, reported stronger-than-expected exports. "We look for a retest on the $1.33 high seen in mid-December and again at the start of the year," said Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman in New York. Against the yen, the euro rose to an 18-month high of 116.98 yen and last traded up 1.9 percent at 116.94 yen. The euro is up an impressive 2.2 percent since the beginning of the year. The euro was also bolstered by solid demand at a sale of mostly two-year Spanish debt, which caused Spain's benchmark 10-year bond yields to fall to a 10-month low. "At the moment, the biggest driver of the euro's value is the spread between Spanish and German bonds and that is going one-way - tighter," said Kit Juckes, foreign exchange strategist at Societe Generale in London. "Euro/dollar looks set to test $1.33 overnight and a weekly close above there, takes it on to $1.35," he said. "The $1.20-$1.33 move in September/December took out all the shorts, and introduced a few random longs. "A move up from here would need longs to get put on more widely, but I would not rule that out," he said. Sterling rose against the dollar after the Bank of England left interest rates and its quantitative easing target unchanged. It was last 0.8 percent higher at $1.6154. The dollar rose for a second straight session against the yen, edging close to a 2-1/2-year high, with the Japanese currency susceptible to further losses on increasing bets of aggressive easing policy by the Bank of Japan. The dollar was last up 0.4 percent on the day at 88.24 yen , not far from 88.40 yen hit on Friday, which was its highest since July 2010. The dollar has appreciated 1.7 percent so far this year. Yen moves should remain volatile ahead of the BOJ's Jan. 21-22 policy meeting. CHINA EXPORT DATA BUOYS GROWTH CURRENCIES Data showed China's export growth rebounded sharply to a seven-month high in December, a strong finish to the year after seven straight quarters of slowdown, even as demand from Europe and the United States remained subdued. (ID:nL5N0RM09N] China's strong export data knocked the low-yielding yen as investors sought higher-yielding and growth-linked currencies like the Australian dollar, which rose to a four-month high versus the U.S. dollar and a 4-1/2 year high against the yen. It has so far been a banner year for the Australian dollar and the New Zealand dollar, notching impressive gains of 1.9 and 2 percent, respectively. The Chinese report "has reinforced a bunch of recent stronger data releases that has the market believing that China is turning the corner and growth will start to increase there again," said George Davis, chief technical analyst at RBC Capital Markets in Toronto. "This may be an interesting theme to watch over the next few weeks in terms of whether or not the 'growth optimism' can be maintained," he said. Davis said from a technical standpoint the Australian dollar/U.S. dollar broke above a strong resistance trendline that dates back to 2011 at 1.0531 on Thursday in response to the Chinese data. "If we get above a double top at 1.0635, it would suggest to me that the positive sentiment is set to continue," he said. The Aussie last traded at 1.0594, up 0.8 percent on the day, according to Reuters data.