China's trade surplus widened in April as imports barely budged, sharpening fears that the world's second-biggest economy is not doing enough to stimulate domestic demand and counter a slowdown.

Imports edged up 0.3 percent to $144.8 billion in April while exports rose 4.9 percent to $163.3 billion, leaving a surplus of $18.4 billion, according to customs data released Thursday.

That compared with a surplus of $5.35 billion in March and a deficit of $31.5 billion in February. China often has a large trade deficit early in the year as factories restock after their long lunar new year holiday break.

The weak import numbers could be a sign Chinese policymakers are failing to boost demand by businesses and consumers for imported goods and raises concerns about whether China will be able to bounce back from slowing growth.

In March, imports rose 5.3 percent while exports climbed nearly 9 percent. The figures for April, especially weakening exports to the 27-nation European Union, China's biggest trading partner, were a disappointment, economists say.

"If the euro zone falls into a deep recession, and that in turn slows U.S. growth, China's export growth will be impacted," ANZ economists Li-gang Liu and Hao Zhou said in an analysis.

A downturn in China's property sector has stalled construction, sharply reducing demand. Slowing imports also reflect falling prices, as well as volumes, for key commodities, such as iron ore and crude oil.

South Korea also recently reported weak trade figures, seen as a sign of prolonged weakness in global trade, Wei Yao, an economist with Societe Generale in Hong Kong, said in a comment before China's trade data were released.

Demand in China has weakened as the government sought to cool inflation and steer the growth of the world's second-largest economy to a more sustainable level after 2010's explosive double-digit expansion.

Growth eased to 8.1 percent in the first quarter of this year after Beijing tightened lending and investment curbs.

Weak demand from China is unwelcome news for Australia, Brazil and Asian economies that sell it oil, iron ore and industrial components.

So far for this year, China's exports have risen nearly 7 percent while imports rose 5 percent, yielding a global surplus for January-April of $19.3 billion.

China's exports to the EU fell 2 percent in April, while its imports rose 4 percent, leaving a surplus of $11.6 billion.

While the EU's struggles with government debt problems are sapping demand there, China's exports to the U.S. jumped 12 percent, to $28.1 billion. Imports rose just 3.2 percent to $11.3 billion, leaving its politically volatile trade surplus at $16.89 billion.

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General Administration of Customs of China (in Chinese): http://www.customs.gov.cn

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Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong contributed to this report.