China on Monday issued a slew of lower-than-expected trade data for November as weak foreign demand weighed on the world's second-largest economy, underlining the fragility of its recovery.
The country's trade surplus fell to $19.6 billion in November, down 38.6 percent from October, according to the customs bureau.
Monthly exports rose 2.9 percent year-on-year to $179.4 billion, while imports were flat at $159.8 billion, it said in a statement.
November's surplus is far below the median forecast of $27.8 billion given by economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires. They also predicted a 9.6 percent expansion in exports and 1.9 percent increase in imports.
The disappointing figures suggested that drivers of a rebound in the Chinese economy were still weak, analysts said.
"The extremely weak exports data have thrown in one more piece of evidence about the fragility of the recovery," Ren Xianfang, a Beijing-based China economist with research firm IHS Global Insight, said in a note.
China's economic growth -- seen as a key factor in the world's economic recovery -- hit a more than three-year low of 7.4 percent in the third quarter.
But recent data including industrial production, retail sales and fixed asset investment -- a key gauge of infrastructure spending -- have all shown improvement, fuelling optimism that the worst was over.
However, economists said the rebound had largely been driven by infrastructure spending, which the government boosted to create an impression of prosperity during the five-yearly Communist Party congress last month.
"A rebound of the economy is just a matter of time, given that the destocking cycle which started in the final quarter of 2011 is nearing an end," Ren said. "But political factors have apparently contributed to a much earlier rebound."
China's export-dependent economy has been struggling in the face of sluggish overseas demand this year as growth in the United States remained weak and the eurozone's debilitating debt crisis dragged it back into recession.
Beijing set its 2012 target for total trade growth at 10 percent, but admitted recently that it would probably miss it.
In the first 11 months of the year, total trade increased just 5.8 percent on 2011 to $3.5 trillion, with exports up 7.3 percent to $1.8 trillion, according to the customs bureau.
Zhang Zhiwei, an economist with Nomura International in Hong Kong, pointed to the uncertain US fiscal situation for last month's deceleration in exports growth from an increase of 11.6 percent in October.
"The export slowdown shows external demand faces uncertainty due to concerns over the fiscal cliff in the US," he told AFP.
The so-called fiscal cliff refers to a combination of severe tax increases and spending cuts due to kick in automatically in January if the president and Congress do not find a compromise plan to cut the deficit first.
Economists warn that careening over the financial precipice would throw the US back into a recession.
Nonetheless, Zhang added that China's growth was on track for strong recovery in the fourth quarter despite the slowdown in trade, as it is mostly "domestically driven".
According to data the government released Sunday, industrial production jumped 10.1 percent year-on-year in November, the third consecutive month of accelerating growth.
Retail sales, the main measure of consumer spending, rose 14.9 percent on year from 14.5 percent in October, while fixed asset investment was up 20.7 percent in the first 11 months of 2012, unchanged from the January-October period.