China's exports in March fell 17.1 per cent from a year earlier to $90.29 billion, the fifth straight monthly drop, the General Administration of Customs announced on Friday.
But the decline was smaller than in February, the latest sign that the economy could be over the worst of a slump induced by the global credit crunch.
In February, the country's exports plummeted 25.7 per cent year-on-year, the worst decline in more than a decade.
''This indicates a sign of improvement in the country's foreign trade,'' the customs agency said.
The agency noted that exports in March rose 32.8 per cent from February while imports grew 14 per cent month-on-month.
However, imports in March plunged 25.1 per cent from a year earlier to $71.73 billion, the customs bureau said.
This led to a 41.2 per cent year-on-year rise to $18.56 billion for Beijing's diplomatically sensitive trade surplus, according to the bureau.
Total import and export value was $162.02 billion last month, down 20.9 per cent year-on-year.
Trade surplus rose to $18.56 billion, up 41.2 per cent from a year earlier, compared with $4.84 billion in February.
China's export industries, which account for about 40 per cent of its GDP, have been hit hard as orders from the US and other countries dry up during the current world economic crisis.
Exports of products from labor-intensive industries, including garments, bags, shoes and furniture, showed net increases, with bags leading the pack with 11.7 per cent year-on-year, and garments notching up 9.9 per cent.
Exports of electrical machinery, grain, fertilizers and steel continued to fall in year-on-year terms, although they were up on the previous month.
The slowing exports did not come as a surprise to analysts but the fall is smaller than expected.
The export figures came three days after the World Bank said that China is likely to emerge from its economic slump later this year, helping the rest of Asia stabilise and possibly rebound. (See: Chinese revival may start this year: World Bank )
China's auto sales hit a monthly record of 1.11 million vehicles in March, exceeding US sales for the third month in a row, according to figures provided by China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
China's massive export machine has been humbled since late last year as the world financial crisis hit overseas demand for products made on what has become known as "the world's factory floor".
The slowdown has led to the closure of thousands of exporting factories in the country's southern and eastern manufacturing heartlands.
At least 25 million migrant workers from China's poor rural areas who normally find jobs in such factories are now unemployed, according to government data released last month.
Chinese authorities in November unveiled an unprecedented four trillion yuan ($580 billion) stimulus package to combat the crisis, and economists have said this has had some impact.
China has taken a number of steps to support exports, such as raising export tax rebates and providing trade financing to hard-hit industries.
Analysts said China will face calls for further measures in the light of continued sag in shipments. But the government will be inhibited from taking aggressive action following its own recent calls for nations to resist protectionism amid the crisis.
When the US economy starts to become more stable this should be reflected in China's trade figures.
Indeed, as shown by the March figures, China's trade with its three largest partners, the European Union, the US and Japan, all increased from a month earlier.
Trade with the EU increased 21.2 per cent to $26.45 billion, with the US, 25.8 per cent to $22.65 billion, and with Japan, 19.1 per cent to $17.52 billion.
Other data released on Friday pointed to a potential recovery in oil demand.
China imported 16.34 million tonnes of crude oil in March, or an average of 3.86 million barrels per day, the customs said.
The volume is down 5.5 per cent down from the record 17.3 million tonnes of crude oil that the nation imported last March during a severe domestic fuel shortage.
However, March's crude import level was up 33 per cent from February's 11.73 million tonnes, which may indicate that the world's second-largest oil consumer is on course for an oil demand recovery.