SEOUL, April 1 (Yonhap) — South Korea’s exports advanced 16.6 percent in March from a year earlier on the back of solid demand for chips and autos to extend their gains for the fifth consecutive month, data showed Thursday, stoking speculation that recovery in Asia’s fourth-largest economy is gathering pace.

Outbound shipments came to US$53.8 billion last month, compared with $46.1 billion a year earlier, according to the data compiled by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

Imports rose 18.8 percent to $49.6 billion, resulting in a trade surplus of $4.17 billion. It marked the 11th consecutive month for the country to post a trade surplus.

The latest figure was slightly lower than the market estimate. According to a poll by Yonhap Infomax, the financial arm of Yonhap News Agency, the country’s March exports were expected to have risen 18.3 percent on-year.

The growth was largely led by exports of chips, which reached $9.51 billion, the highest figure in 28 months.

Exports of automobiles hit $4.4 billion, the highest in more than four years.

On the back of the recovery of global crude prices, exports of petroleum products reported the first growth in more than two years, advancing 18.3 percent.

By destination, exports to China, the top trading partner, advanced 26 percent.

Those to the United States jumped 9.2 percent, while shipments to the European Union also gained 36.6 percent.

In February, the country’s exports shot up 9.5 percent on-year also on the back of robust shipments of chips, autos and other key products.

In 2020, the country’s outbound shipments came to $512.8 billion, down 5.4 percent from 2019. The South Korean economy suffered a 1 percent retreat last year, marking the sharpest-ever contraction since the 1997 financial crisis.

The central bank estimated earlier that the economy is expected to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic at a faster pace than expected this year. In February, the central bank revised up its 2021 growth forecast for exports to 7.1 percent from its estimate in November of 5.3 percent.