* Aug annual export growth highest in 55 months
* Exports may grow 7 pct this year - ministry
* Strong baht not yet affected exports but may do in 2018-ministry (Adds detail, comments)
By Kitiphong Thaichareon and Orathai Sriring
BANGKOK, Sept 21(Reuters) - Thailand’s customs-cleared annual exports in August grew at their fastest pace since January 2013, despite a strong baht, suggesting an economic recovery is gaining more traction.
Exports account for about two-thirds of Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, whose growth still lags regional peers.
In August, exports climbed 13.2 percent from a year earlier, handily beating a Reuters poll forecast of a 4.93 percent rise, and against July’s 10.5 percent growth.
“Global trade recovery significantly boosted exports in the month,” Pimchanok Vonkhorporn, an official at the Commerce Ministry, said at a briefing.
Exports to the United States, Thailand’s biggest market in August, were at record while those to China saw an annual rise of over 20 percent for 10 consecutive months, the ministry said.
The export gains were helped by an annual 13.5 percent rise in electronics shipments and a surge of 139 percent in gold exports. However, shipments of cars and parts slumped 20.8 percent.
In January-August, exports grew 8.9 percent year-on-year, while imports rose 15.4 percent.
The ministry now expects exports to grow by 7 percent in 2017 after last year’s 0.5 percent rise, saying the strong baht has not yet affected this year’s orders which were made in advance but any impact might be felt next year.
“Export growth should not be less than 7 percent this year, as the baht has not affected them,” Commerce Minister Apiradi Tantraporn told the briefing.
The baht has strengthened by 8 percent against the dollar so far this year, the biggest gain in Asian currencies.
Imports in August increased 14.9 percent from a year earlier, in line with the forecast of a 14.75 percent rise. Many of the materials Thailand imports are assembled into completed goods and shipped out again.
Thailand had a trade surplus of $2.09 billion in August, compared with a poll forecast of a $520 million surplus. ($1 = 33.11 baht) (Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Writing by Orathai Sriring; Editing by Sunil Nair)