Chinese exports in January and February rose a combined 16.3% on surging global demand and a spike in trade with Russia in the run-up to the war in Ukraine, according to customs data released today.

The growth rate exceeded economists' expectations of a 15.7% gain from a year earlier.

Shipments from the world's second-largest economy were valued at $544.7 billion in the first two months, the data from the General Administration of Customs showed.

Exports to Russia rose 41% compared to the same time the previous year.

Trade data for January and February is usually combined to even out the impact of the extended Chinese new year holiday, which usually begins in one of those two months.

Imports rose 15.5% to $428.75 billion in the first two months of the year, leaving a Chinese trade surplus of $115.95 billion.

Exports remain a bright spot for a Chinese economy that has slowed sharply in recent months due to virus outbreaks, a property market slump and regulatory crackdowns on key sectors.

China's leaders on Saturday set a target of 5.5% GDP growth this year - the lowest annual goal since 1991 - with Premier Li Keqiang warning of a "grave and uncertain" outlook as the war in Ukraine threatens to damage global supply chains.

China's coal imports in the first two months doubled from a year earlier as Beijing scrambled to replenish supplies after a shortage late last year caused power cuts that paralysed large swathes of the economy.

Exports to Russia grew at the fastest rate among China's major trading partners in January and February, outpacing trade with the European Union and the US.

Russia was also the second biggest source of imports for China, which buys energy products from its neighbour.

Trade with China has served as a lifeline for Russia, which had already faced Western sanctions over its 2014 seizure of the Crimea region from Ukraine.

Moscow's international isolation has deepened following its invasion of Ukraine that began late last month.

China has been Russia's largest trading partner for more than a decade, according to commerce ministry data.

Beijing approved Russian wheat imports just hours before the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine.

But analysts believe China will avoid dramatically increasing trade support to Russia to avoid running afoul of the global sanctions arrayed against Moscow.