BEIJING (AFP) - China's trade surplus surged 48.1 per cent to US$231.1 billion (S$284.4 billion) last year, though total trade volume grew at a much slower pace in the face of economic weakness at home and abroad.
Exports from the world's second-largest economy rose 7.9 per cent to US$2.05 trillion from the previous year, while imports increased 4.3 per cent to US$1.82 trillion, the national customs bureau said on Thursday.
China's trade volume, or the total of exports and imports, grew 6.2 per cent last year, well below the government target of about 10 per cent.
Customs spokesman Zheng Yuesheng said 2012's performance came "despite a sharply slowing world economic recovery, weak international market demand and rather big downside pressure on the domestic economy".
Mr Zheng told reporters: "China's foreign trade continued to grow steadily and made further progress in improving quality, increasing profits and optimising structure."
The figures came after the country's economic growth slowed for seven straight quarters to the end of September, while the broader global economy also faced weakness last year.
The European Union - China's biggest trade partner - continued to suffer through a prolonged debt crisis, while economic recovery in the United States, Beijing's No. 2 commercial counterpart, remained subdued.
Mr Zheng blamed sluggish foreign demand, rising production costs in China, increasing global protectionism and weakening domestic demand for the failure to meet the 10 per cent volume growth target.
Still, he put a positive spin on the disappointment, describing the 6.2 per cent increase as "hard earned" and the best among major economies.
He added the negative factors that hurt trade last year remained in place, but he still saw some reason for optimism, citing efforts to boost growth by China and other major economies.
"We expect trade growth in 2013 to be slightly better than 2012," he said.
The countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations were China's third-largest trade partner last year, while Hong Kong overtook Japan to slot into fourth place.
Total trade with Japan fell 3.9 per cent during the year to US$329.45 billion, Mr Zheng said, blaming most of that decrease on a weak Japanese economy.
However, he added that a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over small islands in the East China Sea that both claim but Japan controls "to some extent also had negative impact on the healthy development of China-Japan bilateral trade".