China's trade contracted in March by an unexpectedly wide margin, adding to expectations that Beijing will launch new stimulus to shore up weakening growth in the world's second-largest economy.
Exports fell 15 percent compared with a year earlier to $144.6 billion following a 20.5 percent contraction the previous month, customs data showed Monday. Imports declined 12.7 percent to $141.5 billion.
The decline fueled fears that economic growth in the first three months of this year, due to be reported this week, fell further after declining to 7.3 percent in the final quarter of 2015.
The weakness "represents not only monthly volatility but also further weakness in foreign trade, adding uncertainties to economic recovery," Citigroup economist Minggao Shen said in a report.
The economy has cooled steadily as communist leaders try to steer China to more sustainable growth based on domestic consumption and reduce reliance on trade and investment. Last year's full-year growth of 7.4 percent was the lowest in two decades.
The decline has deepened since mid-2014, feeding concern that growth might be falling too sharply and raising the risk of politically dangerous job losses.
To spur growth, Beijing has cut interest rates twice since November. China's top economic official, Premier Li Keqiang, said in March that Beijing might intervene to stimulate growth if employment weakens too much.
Also in March, the central bank governor, Zhou Xiaochuan, said economic growth had fallen "too sharply." He said inflation has fallen so low that the country should be alert to the possibility of deflation, or a damaging overall decline in prices.
Total imports and exports in the first three months of the year fell 6.3 percent from a year earlier, making it unlikely China can meet the Communist Party's official target of 6 percent growth for the year.
That "dismal performance" increases the chances Beijing might roll out more help for Chinese exporters following the announcement of export rebates in March, economist Brian Jackson of IHS Global Insight said in a report.