China's exports for December beat analysts' expectations, while import figures grew less than expected. Customs data released Friday showed that exports rose by 20.9% year-on-year, slightly above the average 20% increase expected by analysts.

In U.S. dollar terms, imports increased by 19.5% last month, well below the 26.3% increase forecasted. While growth was better than expected, December's export figures were a dramatic slowdown from figures recorded in November. Imports grew by 31.7% year-on-year and exports by 22% year-on-year during the month.

Pinpoint Asset Management's chief economist, Zhiwei Zhang, said he expects China's export figures to remain strong throughout the first quarter of this year. He added that resilient global demand amid the ongoing pandemic should keep figures up in the coming months.

Zhang said strong exports are key to helping China's economic recovery, with infrastructure investments being a second major driver. Zhang cautioned that significant risks still lie ahead, particularly due to the sporadic COVID-19 outbreak in some cities and provinces throughout China.

Customs data showed that the U.S. remains to be the nation's largest trading partner on a single-country basis. For the entire 2021, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union were its largest trading partners on a regional basis.

China's export to the U.S. increased by 27.5% for 2021 to $576.11 billion. Meanwhile, imports from the nation rose by 32.7% to $179.53 billion. Overall, China's trade surplus with the U.S. was $396.58 billion. This marked the second straight year that China increased its trade surplus with the U.S. since trade tensions escalated between the world's two largest economies.

Despite diplomatic tensions and repeated disputes, China's trade with Australia remained strong last year. Overall trade with Australia grew last year, with China's exports to the country increasing by 24.2%. Importation of goods from Australia to China grew by a surprising 40% year-on-year.

China's importation of crude oil rose by 19.9% year-on-year to 46.14 million tons in December. For the entire 2021, China's imports of oil decreased overall. China's imports of coal decreased in December from their highs in November amid the power shortage. As the issue was resolved, China's imports of coal dropped by 20.8% year-on-year to 30.95 million tons.

China's imports of natural gas rose by 3.8% year-on-year to 11.65 million tons in December. Soybean imports remained strong in December, with an increase of 18% to 8.87 million tons when compared to the same months last year.