U.S. corn futures are expected to start higher Friday on concerns increasing export demand will drain supplies that are already projected at a 15-year low.

Traders predict soft red winter wheat for March delivery, the most-active contract, will start 1 cent to 2 cents a bushel higher at the Chicago Board of Trade. In overnight electronic trading, the contract edged up 1 3/4 cents, or 0.3%, to $6.64 1/4.

Traders were buzzing about demand from Asia after the U.S. Grains Council, an industry group, projected China may have to import as much as nine million metric tons of corn this year to replenish stocks. Significant purchases by the resource-hungry nation would be a new source of demand, as China has been largely self-sufficient in grain production since the mid-1990s.

"Estimates given to us were that China is short by 10 million to 15 million tons in stocks and will need to import corn this year," Council Chairman Terry Vinduska said in a weekly report.

Traders are sensitive to increased demand as supplies have already dwindled due to strong usage and a smaller-than-expected harvest last autumn. Futures prices recently reached 30-month highs in an attempt to slow demand and entice farmers to sow more acres this spring to replenish supplies.

Demand has not slowed yet, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday said private exporters had sold 101,000 metric tons of corn to Japan, a major buyer of grain on the world market. The government initially reported the sales were to China before correcting the destination, raising eyebrows among traders.

"People expect that China is going to buy some corn at some point," said Marty Foreman, analyst for Doane Advisory Services, an agricultural advisory firm in St. Louis.

The USDA reported Thursday corn export sales of more than 1.2 million metric tons for the last full week of January. Included in those figures were net sales of 1.17 million metric tons for the current 2010-11 marketing year, which runs through Aug. 31. Net sales for the week came in well ahead of analysts' expectations.