China's exports fell unexpectedly 0.3 percent in September from a year earlier, customs data showed on Saturday, ending two consecutive months of rises.
This fell short of market forecasts of at least single-digit growth following August's 7.2-percent rise.
Imports, however, increased 7.4 percent last month from a year ago, accelerating from August's 7-percent rise, the General Administration of Customs said.
This left the country with a trade surplus of 15.2 billion U.S. dollars in September, compared with 28.52 billion U.S. dollars in August and 44.7 percent less than the same month last year.
Taking into account exchange rate fluctuations, the country's foreign trade volume rose 3.3 percent in September, down from August's 7.1-percent increase and July's 7.8-percent rise, said Zheng Yuesheng, administration spokesman.
Despite the fall in September, Zheng expected the country's exports to maintain stable development during the next two or three months, based on a survey of 2,000 export enterprises.
Although challenged by a complicated global economic situation, he said the country's foreign trade was stabilizing with improved structure.
"China's dependance on external demand weakened," Zheng said, which showed the country's economic development was transforming from being driven by external demand to domestic demand.
In the first nine months of the year, exports and imports gained 7.7 percent from a year earlier, with the trade surplus growing 14.4 percent year on year to 169.4 billion U.S. dollars.
Trade with the European Union, the nation's largest trade partner, dipped 0.8 percent year on year during the January-September period, compared with a 3.1-percent decrease registered in the first half of 2013.
Trade with the United States, China's second-largest trade partner, rose 6.7 percent in the first nine months, while that with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members increased 11.6 percent.
Zheng said there were signs of recovery for Sino-Japanese foreign trade in the second half of the year, with the rate of decrease in bilateral trade easing for three straight months since July.
The country's exports to Japan edged up 1.5 percent year on year last month, reversing a declining trend starting from July 2012, he said.
Although September's trade data seemed to suggest a sign of weakening exports, many economists were upbeat.
Recovering economies in the eurozone and United States would help stabilize external demand, while stable rising investment at home would boost China's domestic demand, said Wang Tao, chief China economist at UBS.
Wang forecast that China's exports will grow 8.5 percent year on year in 2013, while imports would increase 9 percent.
Saturday's trade data added concerns about the sustainability of a recovery in the world's second-largest economy.
Zheng said the country's economic growth is generally stable but faced downward pressure.
China's growth slowed to 7.5 percent in the second quarter. It is scheduled to release third-quarter growth data on Oct. 18.
"We expect the recovery will last until the end of the year but is likely to slow down moderately again in 2014," J.P. Morgan China economist Zhu Haibin said.
Liu Ligang, chief Greater China economist at ANZ Banking Group, expected the country's economy to grow 7.6 percent this year and put his forecast for the third quarter at between 7.6 and 7.7 percent.