China equities at 7-year highs; Tokyo struggles to cross 20,000

Chinese shares led gains among regional peers to touch fresh seven-year highs on Monday, while Japan's Nikkei 225 struggled to find momentum as it remained a whisker below the key 20,000-point mark.

Wall Street underpinned the buoyant mood when it finished higher on Friday, with the blue-chip Dow breaching 18,000 for the first time this month, as investors looked ahead to the official start of earnings season.

While some companies like Alcoa have already reported quarterly earnings, the earnings season will get into full swing with reports from Dow components like JPMorgan Chase and Intel.

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NIKKEI
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HSI
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ASX 200
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SHANGHAI
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KOSPI
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CNBC 100
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Mainland indices up

China's Shanghai Composite index sprinted 2.2 percent as an unexpectedly bad trade data heightened hopes of further stimulus.

Exports fell more-than-expected, down 14.6 percent in March from the year-ago period, while imports slid 12.3 percent, a tad worse than the expected 11.7 percent fall, official data showed. This brings trade surplus for the month of March to 18.16 billion yuan.

Lenders were yet again among the most active stocks; China Everbright Bank rallied 1.9 percent, while Agricultural Bank of China and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China surged 2.6 and 4.3 percent each.

However, securities firms like Citic Securities and Haitong Securities fell after authorities allowed investors to open multiple A-share accounts.

Read MoreThe risks behind China's growth gamble

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index elevated 2.7 percent to its highest level since January 2008, chalking up a four-day winning streak. The China Enterprises Index, meanwhile, surged 4.3 percent.

Top gainers include Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, which soared 20 percent.

"The [rally] has the potential to keep going, this week may slow slightly, but that's mainly to the fact that there are 24 initial public offerings (IPOs) coming out in China so that's where the focus for retail money will be in the short term," Andrew Sullivan, managing director of Sales Trading at Haitong International Securities, told CNBC Asia's "Squawk Box."

"In the longer run, there's no reason the rally shouldn't continue," he added.

Nikkei flat

Japanese stocks meandered between gains and losses on the first trading day of the week as investors booked profits on the market's recent run-up. Last Friday, the benchmark index crossed the psychological 20,000 level for the first time since April 2000 on Friday, but quickly pulled back on the back of profit-taking.

Carmakers were among the biggest laggards; Nissan and Honda Motor lost 1.3 and 2.5 percent, respectively, and Toyota Motor receded 0.9 percent after scaling a record high last month.

Released just minutes before the market open, core machinery orders, a leading indicator of capital spending, dropped 0.4 percent in February, much lesser than the median estimate of a 2.8 percent fall in a Reuters poll. However, the better-than-expected data did little to boost sentiment.

Meanwhile, minutes of the Bank of Japan's previous policy meeting show policymakers agreeing that the country's economy remains in a "moderate recovery trend."

Read MoreWhich market could enter bubble territory?

ASX slips 0.1%

Lingering worries about the impact of plunging iron ore prices weighed down Australia's S&P ASX 200 index, after UBS revised down its forecast for iron ore prices to $55 a tonne - a downgrade of 27 percent from its initial estimate of $75 a tonne.

Major miners Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals and BHP Billiton lost over 2 percent each. Also weighing on sentiment was news that junior player Atlas Iron will be shutting its mining operations over the next few weeks.

Shares of Seven Group tanked 5.6 percent, stung by the retirement news of its CEO Don Voelte.

However, gains in the financial, as well as oil and gas plays, helped to curb the bourse's decline. Santos and Oil Search climbed nearly2 percent each, while Macquarie Group advanced 1 percent.

The outperformer for the day was Mesoblast, which soared 24.3 percent after U.S.-based Celgene snapped up a stake in the regenerative medicine company.

Kospi adds 0.5%

South Korea's Kospi index closed up at a near four-year high, with brokerage houses raking in strong gains. Hyundai Securities and Samsung Securities jumped 7.5 and 6.3 percent, respectively.

Construction firm Hyundai Development and Hotel Shilla got a lift from news that both companies are joining hands to open the nation's biggest duty free store in Seoul. Shares were up 7.9 and 14.6 percent each.

Read MoreWorld Bank pares China, East Asia growth forecast

Rest of Asia

India's Nifty index rebounded 0.6 percent as crucial inflation data rate fell to a three-month low last month, official figures showed. The consumer price index (CPI) fell to 5.17 percent, lower than the Reuters poll of 5.5 percent and a tick down from February's 5.37 percent.

Singapore's Straits Times index gained 0.4 percent to its highest level since December 2007 as investors looked ahead to the Monetary Authority of Singapore's biannual policy review tomorrow. A Reuters poll found 12 out of 25 economists expect the trading band's midpoint to be lowered, while an additional six expect the band to be widened, which may act as a de facto easing.

Property developers in the lion city like Keppel Corp and CapitaMall Trust led advances.

Meanwhile, the Jakarta Composite shed 0.7 percent as markets expect Bank Indonesia (BI) to hold off easing at its meeting this week.

Financial markets in Thailand are shuttered from Monday to Wednesday for the annual Songkran festival.

— CNBC's Evelyn Cheng contributed to this report