The trade deficit widened unexpectedly in May, led by a big jump in imports from China that helped overpower the best month for U.S. exports since September 2008, a government report showed on Tuesday.

The trade gap widened 4.8 percent to $42.3 billion, the largest since November 2008, defying a consensus Wall Street forecast for it to narrow in May to $39.0 billion.

Imports rose 2.9 percent to the highest since October 2008, led by a 12.1 percent increase in shipments from China and stronger U.S. demand for consumer goods, autos and capital goods.

The big jump in imports from China is consistent with that country's own trade data, which showed exports rising sharply in May and June from year-ago levels.

Exports had their best showing since September 2008, when world trade was in the early stages of a deep plunge as a result of the global financial crisis.

The 2.4 percent rise in U.S. exports in May reflected big gains for industrial supplies and materials and capital goods and smaller rises for autos and consumer goods.

A slight drop in the average price for imported oil to $76.93 per barrel helped keep the monthly trade gap from widening further. U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia and other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries were down about 10 percent in May.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer, Editing by Andrea Ricci)