Surging dairy exports underpinned New Zealand's trade surplus in December, as primarily Chinese demand for milk products lifted overall exports.

The trade balance was a surplus of $523 million in December, in line with expectations, from a surplus of $183 million in November, and $535 million a year earlier, according to Statistics New Zealand. The total value of exports rose 16 per cent to $4.76 billion in December from a year earlier, underpinned by a 48 per cent gain in foreign sales of milk powder, butter and cheese to $1.89 billion. Imports rose 19 per cent to $4.24 billion.

The annual trade balance was a deficit of $259 million in 2013, narrowing the $1.16 billion shortfall in 2012. Annual exports rose 4.4 per cent to $48.09 billion, and imports increased 2.9 per cent to $48.35 billion.

High commodity prices are one of the factors supporting New Zealand's strong economic momentum, with seemingly insatiable Chinese demand for dairy products.


China became the country's biggest trading partner in 2013, toppling Australia in November, taking annual exports of $9.96 billion compared to $6.86 billion in 2012, and delivering imports of $8.26 billion, up from $7.71 billion a year earlier. Monthly exports to China jumped 67 per cent to $1.36 billion in December.

Exports to Australia fell 8.3 per cent to $778 million in December from a year earlier, while sales to the US slipped 3.2 per cent to $379 million.

Annual exports of milk powder, butter and cheese climbed 176 per cent to $13.41 billion, while casein and caseinates rose an annual 8.2 per cent to $949 million. They account for about 30 per cent of the country's total exports.

Meat and edible offal exports rose 4 per cent to $472 million for an annual lift of 2.2 per cent to $5.28 billion. Logs, wood and wood articles exports advanced 28 per cent to $345 million for an annual increase of 22 per cent to $3.86 billion.

Exports of crude oil, which were the fourth biggest commodity sold in 2012, dropped 22 per cent to $1.44 billion in 2013, making it the sixth biggest commodity.

New Zealand imports of petroleum and products fell 2.5 per cent in 2013 to $8.13 billion, while vehicles, parts and accessories rose 13 per cent to $5.83 billion. Mechanical machinery and equipment imports were flat at $6.06 billion in the year.