BEIJING China's export growth probably rebounded from three-month lows in December, although the recovery is likely to remain shallow due to weak demand in the United States and Europe, the country's two biggest customers.
The median forecast of 25 economists polled by Reuters showed Chinese exports likely grew 4 percent in December from a year ago, up from November's surprisingly sluggish 2.9 percent expansion.
December imports were forecast to have grown 3 percent from a year earlier, up from November when growth was flat.
"'Fiscal cliff' and Hurricane Sandy seem to have dragged U.S. manufacturing activity and consumer sentiment down in the fourth quarter, which may have weighed on China's exports in December," said Tao Wang, an economist at UBS. The United States is the second largest buyer of Chinese exports after Europe.
Lackluster growth in Chinese exports and imports should leave the country's trade balance at $19.7 billion in December, economists predicted, a shade above a six-month trough $19.6 billion hit in November.
Many economists expect China's trade sector, which has dragged on growth in the world's second-biggest economy in the past two years, to remain an Achilles' heel in 2013, especially with the euro zone mired in recession.
China's annual export growth to the European Union slumped 18 percent in November, the sharpest fall in at least 13 months.
Research house Capital Economics estimates that the euro zone accounted for two-fifths of the decline in economic growth in emerging markets in the past year, and predicts the drag will be even bigger in 2013 as Europe's recession deepens.
Still, China can count on resilient demand in southeast Asia -- the third-largest buyer of Chinese goods -- to mitigate its trade slump. Exports to the region jumped 19.3 in November from a year ago and some analysts are confident the strength could hold.
Despite its lethargic performance, the trade sector is still a key component of the Chinese growth engine, supporting an estimated 200 million jobs.
(Reporting by Koh Gui Qing; Editing by Alex Richardson)