China's imports of iron ore in July rose 9 percent from June to 51.2 million tons, customs figures showed on Tuesday.
The increase followed three consecutive monthly declines to 47.2 million tons in June, with Chinese customers holding back on purchases amid fading domestic market sentiment.
"The recovery was not within my expectations. I guess some big steel mills might have delayed their deliveries in June to July when prices slumped quickly, and a few traders engaged in speculative buying as they were expecting a rebound in the steel market," a Shanghai-based iron ore trader said.
Another trader suggested a sharp decline in imports from Australia and Brazil might have been offset by increased purchases from India.
Total imports over the first seven months ending in July reached 360 million tons, up 1.5 percent from a year earlier.
Meanwhile, Chinese steel product exports slipped to 4.55 million tons in July, down 19 percent compared with June.
China cancelled export tax rebates on a number of steel products beginning in the middle of July, which has sparked expectations that overseas sales would continue to decline in the coming months.
"The volume was expected already, but it was not too bad though," said Bill Chen, a senior trader at HK-based Smarttiming Steel.
"I expect that steel exports in the coming months will drop quickly, mainly due to the removal of export rebates since July 15, as well as weakening demand from overseas buyers," he added.
China exported a total of 28.1 million tons of steel products over January to July, surging 152 percent year-on-year.