By Xiaoyi Shao and Sue-Lin Wong
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's total trade fell in December but far less than expected, with exports outperforming many of its regional peers after the country let the yuan depreciate sharply, highlighting fears of a currency war among Asia's trade-reliant economies.
"The trade data support our view that, despite turmoil in Chinese financial markets, there has not been a major deterioration in its economy in recent months," Daniel Martin, senior Asia economist at Capital Economics, said in a note.
Exports from the world's largest trading nation fell 1.4 percent from a year earlier, data from the General Administration of Customs showed on Wednesday, much less than a Reuters poll forecast for an 8 percent drop and moderating from November's 6.8 percent decline.
They also sharply outperformed exports from neighboring countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, analysts noted, and came in the face of entrenched weakness in overseas demand.
December imports fell 7.6 percent, receding for the 14th straight month but not as sharply as feared, possibly due to factories stocking up on crude oil, iron ore and other materials as global resource and commodity prices continued to fall.
Indeed, China's crude oil imports hit a record high, while copper imports were the second highest on record.
Economists had forecast an 11.5 percent import slide, after an 8.7 percent drop in November.
The combination produced a $60.09 billion trade surplus for December, compared with economists' expectations of $53 billion and November's $54.1 billion.
"Another large trade surplus provides a cushion for the People's Bank of China in the face of soaring capital outflows," Capital Economics' Martin said.
While Asian stock markets cheered the China data surprise, economists and the customs department said exports will face further pressure in 2016 due to sluggish global demand.
"Companies tend to have to fulfill their contracts by the year end ... and they'll increase the amount they're exporting in December," customs spokesman Huang Songping said.
"This doesn't represent a trend (for 2016). In previous years we've seen exports improve in December. The situation in the first quarter still be relatively severe."
Some economists also raised concerns that the better-than-expected export data could be partly due to currency speculators using false or exaggerated trade invoices to get capital out of China and evade further declines in the yuan.
"As both imports and exports to Hong Kong broke with trends in a major way, it suggests the figures are likely driven by capital flight," Oliver Barron of NSBO said in a research note.
For the full-year, total trade was $3.96 trillion, down 8 percent from 2014 and China's worst performance since the global financial crisis. The government had started the year with a target for 6 percent growth.
China last week allowed the biggest fall in its yuan currency in five months and stock prices plunged, sparking concerns about the health of the world's second-largest economy, though there has been little evidence so far that conditions have deteriorated sharply in recent weeks.
While risks abound, most economists believe the outlook for China's economy hasn't changed, with most sticking to long-held predictions that it is facing a prolonged and gradual loss of momentum rather than a dramatic slowdown.
The central bank has allowed the yuan to weaken more than 5 percent against the dollar since August and sources told Reuters there is some pressure from policy advisers to allow an even sharper fall of as much as 10-15 percent, which would add to fears of competitive devaluations around the world.
But economists aren't sure if even a 10 percent depreciation in the yuan would provide much of a boost to China's exports given persistently weak global demand. Also, while the yuan has softened considerably against the dollar, it hasn't weakened as much against other currencies in trade-weighted terms.
Despite the more modest drop in imports in December, China's actual consumption still appears sluggish, which is boomeranging on already depressed global commodity markets.
While its crude oil imports in 2015 hit a record 6.71 mln barrels per day, its fuel exports also hit an all-time high of 693,300 bpd as refiners had to look abroad to clinch sales.
Likewise, even as its iron ore imports rose, China's steel exports surged nearly 20 percent on the year.
China's economy likely grew by around 7 percent in 2015, in line with the government's official target, the top economic planning agency said on Tuesday.
Still, such a level would be the slowest pace of expansion in a quarter of a century, and down from 7.3 percent in 2014 as weak exports, industrial overcapacity and faltering investment drag.
Some China watchers believe real growth levels are already much weaker than official data suggest, reinforcing expectations that the government will have to roll out more stimulus measures this year to avert the risk of a hard landing.
China will release fourth-quarter and full-year 2015 economic growth data on Jan. 19.
(Reporting by Xiaoyi Shao, Sue-Lin Wong, Meng Meng and Pete Sweeney; Editing by Kim Coghill)