* Export growth has softened, but sharp fall unlikely
* Surging yuan has not yet hurt exporters but policymakers beginning to worry
* Politically sensitive surplus with U.S. surges to near 2-year high (adds comment from analyst, detail on exports by product)
By Elias Glenn and Stella Qiu
BEIJING, Sept 8 (Reuters) - China posted stronger-than-expected import growth in August, reinforcing views that the world’s second-largest economy is still expanding at a healthy pace despite tighter policy.
China’s imports grew 13.3 percent from a year earlier, official data showed on Friday, handily beating analysts’ forecast of 10 percent and accelerating from an 11.0 percent pace in July.
Purchases of industrial commodities continued to lead the way as soaring steel prices boost Chinese mills’ appetite for high-quality foreign iron ore to feed a year-long construction boom.
“The strong import data suggests that domestic demand may be more resilient than expected in the second half to less accommodative monetary policy,” said Louis Kuijs at Oxford Economics in a note, referring to a clampdown on riskier forms of lending which is pushing up borrowing costs.
Exports showed signs of softening, however, with growth cooling to 5.5 percent from a year earlier, roughly in line with analysts’ forecasts for a 6.0 percent increase but down from 7.2 percent in July.
Export growth was the slowest since shipments fell in February, but analysts don’t foresee a protracted slowdown for the world’s largest exporter as global demand still appears solid.
Germany’s BGA trade association now expects German exports to rise 5 percent in 2017, double its earlier forecast, Die Welt newspaper reported on Friday.
Global manufacturing activity also expanded strongly in August, adding to views that demand was holding up in the current quarter.
In addition, China has tended to lag export trends seen elsewhere in North Asia this year. Neighbouring South Korea last week reported robust shipments in August, though the rate of growth eased slightly from July.
China’s electronics exports, which tend to be higher-value and higher-margin goods, increased 7.4 percent in August, while textile and apparel shipments fell by the single digits.
A surging yuan could complicate China’s trade picture in coming months.
Policymakers are beginning to worry as exporters come under strain as the currency scales 21-month highs, insiders told Reuters.
But most analysts say the stronger currency has not yet had a big impact on exports as companies price orders based on longer-term currency trends.
“The strength in the yuan is unlikely to change our optimistic view on China’s near-term export outlook,” ANZ senior China economist Betty Wang wrote in a note, arguing that China has a strong position in global supply chains.
Nevertheless, some smaller Chinese exporters have started to complain of losses due to a sharp turnaround in the yuan , which has firmed nearly 7.8 percent against the faltering U.S. dollar so far this year.
Much of that surge has come in just the past few months, with the currency appreciating 2.1 percent in August alone.
The mixed performance left China with a trade surplus of $41.99 billion for August, the General Administration of Customs said, the lowest since May.
Analysts were expecting China’s trade surplus to have widened to $48.6 billion in August from July’s $46.73 billion.
The growth of China’s exports to the United States at 8.4 percent in August was the slowest pace since a decline in February, while its imports of U.S. goods rose 18.1 percent on-year after a 24.2 percent jump in the previous month.
Shipments to the European Union rose only 5.2 percent in August, the second straight month of declining growth, while exports to Southeast Asia and Taiwan grew at a faster rate.
Despite a rebound in 2017 from several lean years, China’s trade picture also continues to be clouded by persistent worries of further trade tensions with the United States, China’s largest export market.
August saw China with its largest surplus with the U.S. since September 2015 at $26.2 billion, up from $25.2 billion in July.
That could give fresh ammunition to U.S. President Donald Trump who has long complained that the trade imbalance between the two nations hurts the U.S. economy.
Trump in August authorized an inquiry into China’s alleged theft of intellectual property in the first direct trade measure by his administration against Beijing, but one that is unlikely to prompt near-term change.
Beijing has responded that China will tighten controls over IP theft, admitting that its IP protection was “not perfect” as a developing country.
Improving global demand, particularly for electronics, has boosted exports for China and other trade-reliant Asian economies this year.
But investors have been more focused on its strong appetite for imports, particularly industrial commodities such as iron ore and coal, which have sparked a global price rally and fuelled higher earnings and share prices for many resource-related companies.
Sturdy import demand is good news for the government as it prepares for a key Communist Party Congress next month.
Fueled by strong government infrastructure spending, generous bank lending and improving exports, China’s resilience has surprised investors and analysts so far this year.
First-half economic growth surged to 6.9 percent, which should provide enough momentum to easily meet or beat Bejing’s full-year growth target of around 6.5 percent.
Reporting by Stella Qiu and Elias Glenn; Editing by Kim Coghill