China's June trade data on Tuesday stoked anxiety about the strength of domestic demand in the world's second biggest economy as imports rose at only half the pace expected, signalling a need for Beijing to do more to bolster growth.
Officials singled out the debt crisis in the European Union - China's biggest trading partner - as key to Beijing's ability to meet its 10 percent target for trade growth this year, with softening sales to the EU in the first half of 2012 seeing the United States overtake it as China's top export destination.
Annual import growth of 6.3 percent in June fell far short of the 12.7 percent forecast by economists and the 12.7 percent achieved in May, indicating both a drop-off in domestic demand and the running down of inventories by exporters worried about the weakness of new order growth.
"In today's 'accentuate the negative' world, this is going to put the focus on the domestic demand angle and the hard landing story," Tim Condon, chief economist and head of Asian economic research at ING in Singapore, told Reuters.
Import data eclipsed an upside surprise in June export growth to 11.3 percent versus the 9.9 percent expected, leaving a trade surplus of $31.7 billion against May's $18.7 billion.
Brent crude oil sank 1.7 percent after the data, falling below $99 a barrel, while Asian shares gave up gains to trade 0.5 percent down on the day and U.S. stock futures extended losses, pointing to a weaker opening on Wall Street later in the day.
The Australian dollar, sensitive to demand from the biggest single market for Australia's commodities, also fell.
"Exports are better than expected, but I don't this means that we shouldn't be concerned about exports," Sun Junwei, Beijing-based China economist with HSBC, said.
Customs spokesman, Zheng Yuesheng, said as much in a news conference to release the data.
"China's exports to the European Union actually fell in the first half. Our exports to Germany have been falling for four consecutive months and exports to France have been on decline for three straight months, too. Our exports to Italy have been falling for 10 straight months since September," Zheng said.
"The United States replaced Europe to become our largest exporting market in the first half. However, U.S. economic recovery is not stable yet, and its demand for our goods has not returned to the level seen before."
China's exports to the EU fell 0.8 percent in the first half of 2012 to $163.1 billion, while to the United States they rose 13.6 percent to $165.3 percent. China imported $65.8 billion worth of U.S. goods in the first six months, up 7.9 percent.
That rise in exports to the United States is likely to inflame critics of Beijing's trade policies among Washington lawmakers who believe China manipulates its currency to give its exporters an unfair advantage.
So too will news that China's total trade surplus of $68.9 billion in H1 was a 56.4 percent year-on-year increase.
Trade tensions between the globe's two biggest economies have risen recently, with the United States last week filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization in a row over Chinese import duties on $3 billion worth of U.S.-made autos.
"Korean exports year-to-date are flat and Taiwan year-to-date is negative and so China is definitely taking market share - especially if it can grow its exports by 10 percent this year," ING's Condon said.
Vice Commerce Minister, Wang Chao, struck a relatively optimistic note on the outlook for China's trade, telling reporters at a news conference that the second half of the year would be better than the first half.
"We have adopted a series of measures to facilitate trade so we are confident that we can achieve the 10 percent target for full-year trade growth," Wang said.
China's annual export growth has weakened from more than 20 percent seen in 2010, with Europe gripped by recession and economic recovery remaining patchy in the United States.
The government's official annual target for growth in both imports and exports in 2012 is 10 percent, a level that Vice Premier Wang Qishan said just last week Beijing would achieve only with difficulty.
Surveys of thousands of purchasing managers in big and small firms across China already suggest that gathering deflationary pressure is a function of falling demand in an economy in need of more policy easing to turn the tide.
Advanced Micro Devices slashed its outlook for second-quarter revenue on Monday after seeing disappointing sales in China and Europe, becoming one of the biggest tech names to date to warn that a global economic slowdown was taking a harsher-than-expected toll.
A growing number of Chinese firms have also issued profit warnings in recent weeks, with property developer SPG Land on Monday saying it may post a loss for the first-half, highlighting concerns about smaller developers and rattling investors.
"Our house view remains cautious on the outlook for the U.S. and the European economies in the second half. We see some further deterioration of global PMIs and this means there are still strong headwinds for China's export sector," HSBC's Sun said.
"This to me says more easing should be done to support domestic demand and that it will take more time for these measures to really take effect."
Data on Monday showed China's consumer and producer prices eased more than expected in June, signalling falling demand for goods from the manufacturing capital of the world and the likelihood of more policy moves to support the slowing economy.
The People's Bank of China unexpectedly cut benchmark interest rates last week for the second time in a month in a bid to bolster growth. It has also lowered banks' required reserves ratios (RRR) in three 50 basis point steps since November 2011, freeing an estimated 1.2 trillion yuan ($190 billion) to lend.
But that has not stopped economists and investors scaling back their growth calls for China's economy this year and steadily pushing back the consensus view on when the growth cycle is set to bottom from Q1 to Q2 and, increasingly, into Q3.
Analysts polled by Reuters last week forecast China's annual rate of GDP growth will have eased to 7.6 percent in the second quarter of the year versus 8.1 percent in Q1. GDP data is due on Friday.
It is likely to be the slowest quarter of growth in the country since the first three months of 2009, in the depths of the global financial crisis when world trade ground to a halt.
Ting Lu, China economist with Bank of America/Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong, wrote in a note to clients that June's trade data confirmed that the current situation was not that bad.
"The trade data suggest that the situation of China's exports in H1 2012 was still much better than the case of Q4 2008 and H1 2009. That's why we believe there is no need for panic and there will be no huge stimulus," he said.