By Kaori Kaneko
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's exports probably rose at the fastest pace in two years in February thanks to a softer yen and improving global demand, a Reuters poll showed on Friday.
But uncertainty over possible trade protectionist moves by the United States is still clouding recovery prospects for the world's third-largest economy.
Exports are expected have jumped 10.6 percent in February from a year earlier, which would be the biggest gain since January 2015 when they rose 16.9 percent.
The number were likely flattered by a rebound in Asian demand, after Japan's shipments slowed in January due to the long Lunar New Year holidays in China and other parts of the region. Shipments had edged up 1.3 percent in January.
Imports likely rose 0.6 percent from a year earlier, slowing sharply from growth of 8.5 percent in January, which marked their first increase in two years.
That is expected to produce a trade surplus of 822.0 billion yen ($7.25 billion), compared with a deficit of nearly 1.09 trillion yen in January, the poll of 20 analysts showed.
"You need to average out exports in January and February to assess the trend considering the impact from the Lunar New Year holidays," said Yoshiki Shinke, chief economist at Dai-ichi Research Institute.
"Still, there is a chance that an average of exports in January and February surpassed that of October-December. And data next week will be something to confirm exports stayed on a recovery trend as the manufacturing sector is picking up globally."
The finance ministry will release the trade data at 8:50 a.m. JST on Wednesday (2350 GMT Tuesday.)
Japan's trade surplus with the United States has been declining. But if it starts rising again, it could become a flashpoint after President Donald Trump singled out Japan, China and Germany for their high exports into the U.S. market.
In April, Japan and the United States will start a high-level economic dialogue chaired by Finance Minister Taro Aso, who also serves as deputy prime minister, and Vice President Mike Pence.
Japan hopes to use the dialogue to seek ways to avoid trade frictions on issues like autos and agriculture sectors by proposing an agenda focused on infrastructure investment and energy.
Japan's long-stagnant economy has shown signs of life in recent months, with exports and factory output benefiting from a global economic recovery. But consumer spending has remained sluggish.
(Reporting by Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Kim COghill)