TAIPEI, Oct 8 Taiwan's exports in September grew 10.6 percent from a year earlier, beatin

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TAIPEI, Oct 8 (Reuters) Taiwan's exports in September grew 10.6 percent from a year earlier, beating expectations, as strong sales to China and Southeast Asia offset continuing weakness in shipments to the United States.

Exports grew at the fastest pace in three months to reach a record US$22.2 billion, the finance ministry said on Monday.

That compares with US$21.4 billion in August, when growth was 10.5 percent.

A Reuters poll of economists had forecast September growth of 7.4 percent.

Analysts said uncertainty over the strength of U.S. demand due to turmoil in credit marketS could hamper Taiwan's export performance for the rest of the year, with growth likely to be at single-digit rates.

Exports to the United States in September fell an annual 8.3 percent to US$2.63 billion, declining for a third straight month.

''This does raise concern that U.S. firms, fearing the possible impact on the broader economy from the subprime mortgage meltdown amid a weak housing sector, have turned cautious ahead of the year-end festive season,'' said Tony Phoo, an economist at Standard Chartered.

In August, exports to the United States posted their biggest fall ever with an 11.5 percent decline.

Overall imports climbed 10.5 percent in September from a year earlier to US$19.1 billion, government data showed, slightly higher than the poll's 10.0 percent forecast and a big contrast with the 0.3 percent decline in August.

Imports were fuelled by purchases of aircraft and higher oil prices, finance ministry officials said.

The figures yielded a US$3.2 billion trade surplus for September, compared with the poll's forecast of US$2.6 billion and a surplus of US$2.8 billion a year earlier.

''The export figure hit a new record high again, which should be due to demand from China for Taiwanese exports as it builds for the 2008 Olympics,'' said Anita Hsu, an analyst at Masterlink Securities.

''We estimate that exports should grow about 11 percent in the fourth quarter and there could be a slight upward revision.'' Growth in orders, an indication of the strength in actual exports in coming weeks, eased to 16.3 percent in August, prompting some analysts to expect a slowdown in exports for the rest of the year.

Shipments to China and Hong Kong -- Taiwan's largest market -- rose 19.7 percent in September from a year earlier to US$9.79 billion, higher than the 14.8 percent rise in August.

Exports in the electronics sector, Taiwan's biggest earner, were up an annual 4.7 percent in September, government data showed, compared with a 7 percent climb in August.

Taiwan is home to the world's top two contract chip makers.

It makes around 80 percent of the world's laptop computers and more than 40 percent of its flat panel displays.

REUTERS MP HT1655

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