The nation’s customs-cleared trade surplus plunged by 79.7 percent in August to 116.3 billion yen on a year-on-year basis, as the imports bill ballooned to record levels amid an ongoing runup in oil prices, the Finance Ministry said Thursday.

Imports in the month expanded by 21.1 percent to 5.1 trillion, yen marking an 18th straight monthly rise, with crude oil imports surging 49.2 percent in value terms, the ministry said in a preliminary report.

Crude oil prices in August on a customs-cleared basis stood at $55.5 per barrel, up 47.2 percent from a year earlier, according to the ministry.

Exports meanwhile rose by 9.1 percent to 5.22 trillion, yen marking a 21st consecutive month of increase, amid firm demand for automobiles in the United States and steel in China.

The trade surplus in the reporting month is the lowest since January 2003, when it stood at 96.1 billion, yen a ministry official said.

This also represents the fifth straight monthly shrinkage in the trade surplus.

One private sector economist attributed the decline to soaring oil prices, voicing concern over the negative impact this trend could have on the economy in the future.

“If an uptrend in crude oil prices continues, the nation’s trade surplus is likely to taper off further,” said Tatsushi Shikano, chief market economist at UFJ Tsubasa Securities Co.

“Lingering high oil prices may also dampen domestic demand and the economic recovery as a whole.”

Exports to and imports from China totaled 1.8 trillion yen in August, topping the 1.74 trillion yen logged for the United States, emphasizing China’s growing economic clout.

This is the second time Japan’s trade with China has exceeded that with the United States. China assumed the mantle of Japan’s top trading partner for the first time in January.

Japan’s trade surplus with other parts of Asia in August declined 23.4 percent to 410 billion, yen down for a 10th straight month.

Exports to the region rose 9.7 percent to 2.63 trillion, yen while imports increased 19.2 percent to 2.22 trillion yen.

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