China Jan-March FDI at $29.9 billion, up 1.44 percent year on year

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's foreign direct investment inflows rose 1.44 percent in the first three months of 2013 from a year earlier, snapping the longest run of annual decline, as a gentle recovery in the Chinese economy helped boost investor confidence.

The Commerce Ministry said on Thursday that China drew $29.9 billion (19.6 billion pounds) in foreign direct investment in the first quarter.

In March alone, investment inflows were up 5.65 percent from a year earlier to $12.4 billion.

The FDI figure follows a raft of economic data for the first quarter, ranging from slowing factory output to easing investment spending, which pointed to a weak growth momentum in the world's second-largest economy.

China's economic recovery unexpectedly stumbled in the first months of this year, growing 7.7 percent from a year ago, slower than 7.9 percent hit in the final quarter of last year and also below Reuters consensus forecast of 8.0 percent.

FDI is an important gauge of the external economy to which China's vast factory sector is oriented, though it is a small contributor to China's overall capital inflows compared with exports, which were worth about $2 trillion in 2012.

China attracted a total of $111.7 billion in FDI in 2012, just shy of 2011's record $116 billion and marking the first annual fall in three years.

The Commerce Ministry data also showed investment inflows from the European Union rose 45 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier to $2.1 billion, while investment by U.S. firms rose 18.5 percent during the same period to $1.1 billion.

FDI from the 10 top Asian economies, including Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, fell 0.3 percent year on year in the first quarter, to $25.8 billion, the ministry said.

Service sector inflows were $14.4 billion in the first three months, up 2.8 percent on a year earlier.

Manufacturing sector inflows totalled $13.2 billion in the same period, up 0.6 percent versus a year earlier.

Beijing has said it wants to bring in $120 billion worth of FDI each year between 2012 and 2015.

China joined the World Trade Organization in November 2001 and FDI inflows have soared since. OECD data shows China rivals the United States as the world's top FDI destination.

China's outbound direct investment from non-financial firms in the first quarter totalled $23.8 billion, up 44 percent from a year earlier, the Commerce Ministry added.

(Reporting by Aileen Wang and Jonathan Standing; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)