China's 2017 export outlook brightened considerably today as it reported forecast-beating trade growth in March and as US President Donald Trump softened his anti-China rhetoric in an abrupt policy shift.

Washington's improving ties with Beijing were underscored when Mr Trump told the Wall Street Journal in an interview yesterday that he would not declare China a currency manipulator as he had pledged to do on his first day in office.

The comments were an about-face from Mr Trump's campaign promises, which had rattled China and other Asian exporters, and came days after his first meeting with President Xi Jinping where he pressed China to help rein in North Korea.

China's exports rose at the fastest pace in a little more than two years in March, climbing 16.4% from a year earlier in a further sign that global demand is improving, the customs office reported today.

"There are increased signs of warming up in the global economy", which helped China's steady growth in the first quarter, Yan Pengcheng, a spokesman for the country's top economic planning agency, told a news conference.

Import growth remained strong at 20.3%, driven by the country's voracious appetite for oil, copper, iron ore, coal and soybeans, whose volumes all surged from February despite worries about rising inventories.

China's crude oil imports hit a record high of nearly 9.2m barrels per day, overtaking the United States.

The stronger trade data reinforced the growing view that economic activity in China has remained resilient or is even picking up, adding oomph to a global manufacturing revival, though analysts say growth in imports could slow.

"Right now domestic demand is still quite stable and robust. But the ultimate driver actually is property investment (which) we expect to slow," Nomura economist Yang Zhao said.

Mr Zhao expects import growth will moderate to the high-single digits in the second quarter.

Imports had surged 38% in February while exports unexpectedly dipped, but China's data in the first two months of the year can be heavily skewed by the timing of the Lunar New Year holidays, when many businesses shut for a week or more.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected March exports to have increased by 3.2% from a year earlier, a rebound from a 1.3% drop in February.

Imports had been forecast to rise 18%, after surging 38.1% in February.

China reported a trade surplus of $23.93 billion for March.

Analysts had expected the trade balance to return to a surplus of $10 billion in March, after it reported its first trade gap in three years in February.