UPDATE 2-China's 2020 soybean imports climb 13% to record as pig sector demand recovers

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By Hallie Gu and Dominique Patton

BEIJING, Jan 14 (Reuters) - China's soybean imports jumped 13% to an annual record in 2020, customs data showed on Thursday, after crushers ramped up purchases amid improved margins and healthy demand from the country's rapidly recovering pig sector.

China, the world's top soybean buyer, bought 100.33 million tonnes of the oilseed in 2020, up from 88.51 million tonnes in 2019, according to the General Administration of Customs.

For December alone imports came in at 7.524 million tonnes, down 27% from 9.54 million tonnes a year ago and down also from November's 9.59 million tonnes.

"December soy imports were lower than expected, probably due to shipping delays," said Xie Huilan, analyst with agriculture consultancy Cofeed. But the annual figures matched expectations, Xie said, as demand was good while China brought in more U.S. cargoes.

China has been rebuilding its pig herd, which was ravaged by the deadly African swine fever disease, with the pig population now approaching normal levels, according to state media.

Demand remains very strong, according to a manager with a soybean crusher in northern China.

"Imports in the New Year are expected to hit a new record high," he added, declining to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Crushers bought Brazilian soybeans early in 2020, and turned to U.S. cargoes in the fourth quarter when American beans hit the market, and as Beijing stepped up purchases of U.S. farm produce to meet the terms of China's trade deal with the United States.

China's 2020 U.S. soybean imports were up 56.3% from a year earlier in yuan terms, the country's customs spokesman said a press briefing on Thursday.

(Reporting by Hallie Gu and Dominique Patton; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Kenneth Maxwell)

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