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Asia: Markets in retreat as China sparks new fears

[HONG KONG] Nervous Asian investors resumed selling on Wednesday as the optimism that had fuelled this month's rally was shattered as ongoing weakness in China reawoke fears about the global economy.

With traders moving back into investments considered safer, the losses were felt across assets with oil and emerging market currencies also turning lower.

After a string of gains in recent weeks, confidence took a hit on Tuesday when China released data showing exports from the world's number two economy had plunged by the most since the financial crisis.

The news refocused attention on the slowdown in China - one of the key reasons global markets suffered a bloodbath at the start of the year - sending markets tumbling from Asia to the Americas.

Market voices on:

"China trade data has become the seismic centre for concerns over the global economy," Chihiro Ohta, general manager of investment information at SMBC Nikko Securities in Tokyo, told Bloomberg News.

"The recent trend is that when the market's up everything goes up, and when it's down everything is down. It's not a nimble market where certain areas rise and certain areas fall." China's leaders are meeting this week for the annual rubber-stamp National People's Congress, where premier Li Keqiang set a growth target of 6.5-7.0 per cent for this year.

In early trade Wednesday Shanghai's stock market was 2.1 per cent lower, while Hong Kong lost 0.6 per cent. Tokyo fell 1.6 per cent by the break and Seoul lost 0.1 per cent. Taipei and Manila also slipped but Sydney ticked higher Energy firms fell into the red as oil prices turned lower. Sydney-listed BHP Billiton was 3.5 per cent down while rival Rio Tinto lost three per cent. In Tokyo Inpex was down more than four per cent and Hong Kong listing CNOOC slipped 2.7 per cent while PetroChina slipped 2.4 per cent.

Crude prices extended losses seen Tuesday owing to long-running worries about a global oversupply, although both contracts remain above US$35 a barrel weeks after falling below US$30.

US benchmark West Texas Intermediate was down 0.1 per cent Wednesday and Brent lost 0.3 per cent.

On currency markets the flight from higher-yielding safe assets saw the dollar gains against emerging units, with South Korea's won down 0.6 per cent and the Indonesian rupiah 0.3 per cent lower. The oil-linked Malaysian ringgit shed 0.5 per cent while the Singapore and Taiwan dollars also retreated.