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BEIJING (Reuters) - China's foreign direct investment inflows fell 3.8 percent in the first nine months of 2012 from a year ago, extending the longest run of declines since the depths of the global financial crisis as stiff economic headwinds dent corporate spending plans.
The same slowdown in overseas markets led the Ministry of Commerce to warn on Friday that exports, too, face an uphill battle despite rosier-than-expected September data.
China drew $83.4 billion in foreign direct investment between January and September, with September's inflow alone down 6.8 percent on year-ago levels at $8.4 billion, the Commerce Ministry said on Friday.
"China's FDI inflows have entered a sort of adjustment period, as the total amount dropped over past months, but it was only a slight drop," Commerce Ministry spokesman Shen Danyang told a news conference.
"Meanwhile, the quality and structure of investment inflows have improved, therefore, we can say such an adjustment is normal and positive."
The shrinking FDI figure followed a raft of economic activity indicators released on Thursday that pointed to a mild recovery in the growth momentum in September, although the economy slowed for a seventh straight quarter in the July-September period.
Earlier data showed China's foreign exchange reserves, the world's largest, rose to $3.29 trillion at the end of September from $3.24 trillion at the end of June. The $50 billion rise came after a $65 billion drop in Q2.
Despite evidence of corporate caution in the face of uncertain global demand, China's trade showed signs of improvement last month, with exports rising at twice the rate expected by economists and imports returning to the path of expansion, suggesting Beijing's measures to underpin growth are starting to show results.
The commerce ministry's Shen warned that the September data was not enough to be optimistic.
"We are happy to see that the September trade data has shown some positive changes. But with only a single month's figure, it is still not enough to judge a trend of recovery due to the complicated external economic environment," he said.
China rolled out an array of measures last month to help stabilize export growth, speeding payments of export tax rebates, easing access to bank loans and cutting fees.
China has an official target of 10 percent growth in both exports and imports for 2012. But some trade officials have cast doubt about the ability to achieve it given the uncertainties hanging over external demand.
Commerce Ministry data showed investment inflows from the European Union dropped 6.3 percent year-on-year in the first nine months to $4.8 billion, while investment by U.S. firms dropped 0.6 percent to $2.4 billion.
FDI inflows from the top 10 Asian economies, including Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, fell 4.9 percent between January and September versus the same period a year ago to $71.0 billion, the ministry said.
FDI is an important gauge of the health of the external economy, to which China's vast factory sector is oriented, but its contribution to total capital flows is dwarfed by exports, which were worth about $1.9 trillion in 2011.
China drew a record $116 billion in foreign direct investment last year. The commerce ministry aims to attract an average of $120 billion in each of the next four years. It is roughly on course to hit the target in 2012.
China's outbound direct investment from non-financial firms in the first nine months totaled $52.5 billion, up 28.9 percent year on year, the ministry said.
Editing by Ken Wills and Alex Richardson