China’s export growth slowed to a three-year low last year as the effects of trade tensions with the US and a slowing global economy took their toll. Exports grew 0.5 per cent in dollar terms in 2019, the lowest reading since 2016, when they contracted, and down from the 9.9 per cent growth a year earlier, according to China’s general administration of customs. Imports fell 2.8 per cent last year.

Trade tensions between Beijing and Washington rose last year with each side applying additional tariffs on the others’ goods, stoking fears that the dispute would push the global economy into a downturn.  In renminbi terms, trade with the US fell 10.7 per cent to Rmb3.73tn ($541bn). But Zou Zhiwu, vice-minister at China’s customs administration, said bilateral trade between the world’s two largest economies began to improve at the end of the year.

“Our US imports started to recover in November and December,” he said at a briefing on Tuesday, pointing to a 9.1 per cent year-on­ year increase last month. Imports of US agricultural products doubled while vehicle imports increased 50 per cent, he said. In December, the US and China agreed not to proceed with a planned round of tariff increases. Liu He, China’s vice-premier and top trade negotiator, flew to Washington on Monday to sign a “phase one” trade deal.

This week’s agreement, if concluded as scheduled on Wednesday, aimed to increase Chinese purchases of US commodities, manufactured goods and services by $2oobn over the next two years, compared with 2017. Donald Trump began imposing punitive tariffs in the summer of 2018, fuelling a two-year decline in bilateral trade and investment flows between the world’s largest economies. The escalations continued in September, with the Chinese government responding with tariffs of its own on US exports.