Asia Markets

Asia trades higher as investors shrug off escalating US-China trade tensions

Key Points
  • Asia markets mostly rose on Wednesday as investors mostly shrugged off an escalating trade conflict between the U.S. and China.
  • Late Tuesday, China announced that it was imposing tariffs on U.S. goods worth about $60 billion.
  • Beijing's retaliation came after the Trump administration announced that it was slapping 10 percent tariffs on Chinese goods valued at about $200 billion on Sept. 24.

Asia markets mostly rose on Wednesday as investors took an escalation of trade tensions between the U.S. and China in their stride.

In Australia, the benchmark ASX 200 rose 0.46 percent to close at 6,190. Major mining stocks rose: shares of Rio Tinto surged 3.06 percent, Fortescue jumped 4.70 percent and BHP gained 2.92 percent.

Japan's was up 1.08 percent to close at 23,672.52, and the Topix index added 1.46 percent to close at 1,785.66. The Bank of Japan kept its monetary policy steady and maintained an upbeat view on the economy. In its policy statement, the central bank said it expects Japan's economy to "continue its moderate expansion" and that domestic demand is likely to follow an uptrend.

Chinese mainland markets were up: the Shanghai composite gained 1.14 percent to 2,730.85 in closing, and the Shenzhen composite added 1.35 percent to close at 1,423.22.

Hong Kong's gained 1.19 percent to close at 27,407.37. In South Korea, the Kospi finished near flat, dropping 0.02 percent at 2,308.46.

Premier Li Keqiang addressed the World Economic Forum in Tianjin on Wednesday, where he acknowledged that China is confronted by a host of challenges and is facing "greater difficulties in keeping stable performance of the Chinese economy." But he insisted that China was comfortable with its economic situation, and that Beijing has prepared sufficient policy tools to boost the country's resilience in coping with various difficulties.

Li's comments followed an escalation in trade tensions between the United States and China.

China announced tariffs targeting more than 5,000 U.S. products — worth about $60 billion — will go into effect on Sept. 24. However, China will put a 10 percent tariff on some goods it had previously earmarked for a 20 percent levy. At the same time, China's commerce ministry said that it filed a complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the U.S.

Beijing's announcement came after the Trump administration said the U.S. will impose 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, and those duties will rise to 25 percent at the end of the year.

"China is limited in its scope for direct retaliation from here, with only $50 billion worth of imports left to target, but so far has refrained from threatening to tariff all imports from the U.S.," Jo Masters from ANZ Research said in a morning note.

The complaint to the WTO risks provoking further measures from the U.S. and could eventually escalate to all American imports from China being taxed, Masters added.

"Increasingly it looks like this will be a prolonged dispute. And as it escalates, so does the economic fall-out," Masters said.

Amid all that, China's holdings of U.S. Treasury bills, notes and bonds dropped to a six month low of $1.171 trillion in July, from $1.178 trillion in June. That data is watched because dumping Treasury securities is viewed as one way China could retaliate against the U.S. in the ongoing trade dispute. Still, strategists are skeptical China is really trying to send a message this way.

In the currency market, the dollar index, which measures the greenback against a basket of currencies, traded at 94.424 at 5:44 p.m. HK/SIN, falling from levels above 94.800 earlier in the week.

The Japanese yen, which is considered a safe haven currency, traded at 112.33 to the dollar, weakening from levels below 111.6 in the previous week. Relative weakness in the yen likely saw major Japanese exporters trade up, with Toyota shares gaining 0.85 percent, Nissan up 1.16 percent and Honda adding 3.01 percent.

Elsewhere, the traded at $0.7250, strengthening from levels below $0.7120 in the previous week.

Analysts said that markets have mostly shrugged off the escalation in trade tensions between the world's two largest economies.

"Risk markets have not only taken these announcements in their stride, but it's been a risk-on mood permeating markets with stocks, commodities, bond yields, and risk-sensitive currencies all performing," David de Garis, director for economics and markets at the National Australia Bank, wrote in a note.

He pointed out that there's a realization among investors that the U.S. economy has continued to perform despite what will likely be some uptick in inflation from the tariffs. Investors are also recognizing signs that the Chinese authorities are taking steps to buttress their economy with more policy support, De Garis said.

Oil prices fell in the late afternoon session in Asia, with U.S. crude down 0.2 percent at $69.71 a barrel at 5:47 p.m. HK/SIN, and global benchmark Brent declining 0.3 percent to $78.79.

Overnight, oil futures gained more than 1 percent following signs that OPEC would not be prepared to raise output to address shrinking supplies from Iran, reports said.

— CNBC's Patti Domm, Evelyn Cheng, Fred Imbert and Reuters contributed to this report.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the Hang Seng index closed at 27,407.37 and that the Kospi closed 0.02 percent lower.