The trade deficit narrowed slightly in January as U.S. exports rose to an all-time high while imports dropped, sending a hopeful signal that the country's trade imbalances may finally start to improve this year.

The Commerce Department reported Friday that the gap between what America sells abroad and what it imports fell to $59.1 billion in January, down by 3.8 percent from a December deficit of $61.5 billion.

The improvement came despite the fact that the politically sensitive deficit with China shot up by 12 percent to $21.3 billion, a development certain to increase pressure on the administration to deal with what critics see as China's unfair trade practices.

Exports of goods and services rose by 1.1 percent to an all-time high of $126.7 billion in January, reflecting gains in sales of American airplanes, computers and farm products such as soybeans and wheat.

Imports declined a slight 0.5 percent to $185.8 billion. Shipments of foreign cars, clothing, televisions and toys and games all were down. These declines offset a 5.4 percent increase in America's foreign oil bill, which rose 5.4 percent to $24.5 billion in January.

The trade deficit has set records for five straight years, reaching $765.3 billion in 2006 with one-third of that amount accounted for by the imbalance with China, which jumped to $232.5 billion last year, the largest trade gap ever recorded with a single country.

Those rising trade deficits have come as America has lost 3 million manufacturing jobs since President Bush took office in January 2001, losses that critics blame in part on the soaring trade deficits.

Democrats took control of the House and Senate in the 2006 elections with campaigns that attacked Bush's free trade policies, arguing that the administration has failed to protect Americans workers from other countries' unfair trade practices.