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Asia markets were subdued as investors wait for concrete developments in US-China trade talks

Key Points
  • Stocks in China closed mixed despite the country's trade data for January coming in stronger than expected.
  • The South China Morning Post reported Wednesday that China's Xi will meet with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on Friday.
  • China and the U.S. are trying to strike a deal before March 2. Otherwise, additional U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods could take effect.

High-level trade talks between the U.S. and China are underway in Beijing. Stocks in Asia were mixed on Thursday as investors looked for progress in the months-long tariff dispute.

There were reports that U.S. President Donald Trump may be considering whether to extend the deadline for a trade deal with China.

The mainland Chinese markets closed mostly higher. The Shenzhen component rose 0.597 percent to close at around 8,219.96 while the Shenzhen composite advanced 0.659 percent to finish its trading day at approximately 1,398.84. Meanwhile, the Shanghai composite closed slightly lower at about 2,719.70

Hong Kong's Hang Seng index fell more than 0.3 percent, as of its final hour of trading.

China trade numbers

The moves came on the back of Chinese trade data for January coming in stronger than expected.

Dollar-denominated exports for the month rose 9.1 percent from a year ago, according to Chinese customs data. January exports in the world's second-largest economy were expected to have contracted 3.2 percent from a year earlier, according to economists in a Reuters poll, compared with December's 4.4 percent decline.

January dollar-denominated imports fell 1.5 percent on-year, which was far better than expected. Imports in December fell 7.6 percent from a year ago.

"The variable timing of the Lunar New Year likely helped lift export growth, rather than reflecting any significant change in global demand. Looking at the regional picture, growth in South Korean exports fell over the same period, while Taiwan's exports likely contracted as well based on its January PMI readings," Nick Marro, analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a note following the release of the Chinese trade data.

"This suggests that demand headwinds, both in the global consumer electronics industry and more generally, are continuing to bite into growth — meaning that downwards pressure on growth in Chinese shipments will likely return sooner rather than later, regardless of what happens with the trade negotiations this week," Marro said.

Japan GDP

Elsewhere in Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 and Topix both closed largely unchanged at 21,139.71 and 1,589.81, respectively. Shares of Fast Retailing, the company behind the Uniqlo chain of apparel stores, rose 0.43 percent on the day.

That came after government data showed Japan's gross domestic product grew at an annualized rate of 1.4 percent in the October to December period last year.

The preliminary reading for fourth quarter gross domestic product was in line with expectations from economists polled by Reuters. It came on the back of a downward revision to 2.6 percent annualized contraction in the third quarter.

Australia's ASX 200 slipped fractionally to close at 6,059.40 as the heavily-weighted financial subindex shed 0.8 percent. Shares of the country's so-called Big Four banks declined: Australia and New Zealand Banking Group slipped 0.34 percent, National Australia Bank shed 0.66 percent, Westpac fell 0.72 percent while Commonwealth Bank of Australia declined 0.87 percent.

South Korea's Kospi, on the other hand, jumped 1.11 percent to close at 2,225.85.

Asia-Pacific Market Indexes Chart

Tariff talks

Overnight, U.S. stocks rose on hopes of a possible U.S.-China trade deal.

The South China Morning Post reported Wednesday that China's Xi will meet with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on Friday.

The report, which cites sources close to the matter, said Xi "is scheduled to meet" with key members of the U.S. trade delegation that's in Beijing, including Lighthizer and Mnuchin. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He is also expected to attend a banquet for the U.S. delegation this week, according to the newspaper.

"There is reason to believe that the two sides are engaged in very serious discussion and hopefully, by the end of that ... there will be a kind of deal," Victor Gao, vice president at Center for China and Globalization, told CNBC's "Squawk Box" Thursday.

"This will avert further aggravation of tensions between China and the United States and, hopefully, it will help (in) putting the trade war behind us," Gao said.

China and the U.S. are trying to strike a deal before March 2. Otherwise, additional U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods could take effect. The two economic powerhouses have been locked in an ongoing trade fight that has rocked global financial markets since 2018.

Currencies

The U.S. dollar index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of its peers, was at 97.032 after seeing an earlier high of 97.176.

The Japanese yen traded at 111.04 against the dollar after touching an earlier high of 110.85. The Australian dollar was at $0.7128 after seeing a low of around $0.7082 earlier.

Oil prices rose in the afternoon of Asian trade. The international benchmark Brent crude futures rose 0.99 percent to $64.24 per barrel. The U.S. crude futures contracts also gained 0.87 percent to $54.37 per barrel.

— Reuters, along with CNBC's Fred Imbert and Huileng Tan, contributed to this report.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that the Australian dollar was trading around $0.7128 on Thursday.