Stocks plunged on Wall Street after US President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Thursday – and that fear rippled into Asia, where markets went on a stomach-churning ride.

A man rests as he keeps an eye on stock price movements displayed on a screen at a securities company in Beijing on March 23, 2018. Asian markets plunged on March 23 following a sell-off in New York as Donald Trump sparked fresh trade war fears by imposing huge tariffs on Chinese imports and Beijing unveiled its own measures against US goods.
A man rests as he keeps an eye on stock price movements displayed on a screen at a securities company in Beijing on March 23, 2018. Asian markets plunged on March 23 following a sell-off in New York as Donald Trump sparked fresh trade war fears by imposing huge tariffs on Chinese imports and Beijing unveiled its own measures against US goods. (AFP)

Fears of a trade war roiled financial markets and sent the dollar wobbling on Friday after Beijing retaliated against the Trump administration's tariff hikes by threatening import duties on US goods.

Stocks plunged on Wall Street after US President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Thursday on goods and investment from China. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped more than 700 points as investors feared trade tensions between the world's largest economies would escalate.

That fear rippled into Asia, where markets went on a stomach-churning ride. 

Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index plunged 4.3 percent to 20,671.11 and South Korea's Kospi tumbled 2.4 percent to 2,437.31. 

Hong Kong's Hang Seng lost three percent to 30,144.95 and the Shanghai Composite in mainland China sank 3.4 percent to 3,151.71. 

Australia's S&P/ASX 200 skidded two percent to 5,819.70. Benchmarks in Taiwan and Southeast Asia also fell.

Potential targets

"If the tariffs go ahead as planned, then we believe China will retaliate. It is impossible to imagine that they cannot. And then we expect the US to retaliate further," Rob Carnell, ING's chief Asia economist, said. "This can turn ugly on a global scale very quickly."

The planned US sanctions include tariffs on $48 billion worth of Chinese imports as well as restrictions on Chinese investments. Trump said he was acting in response to theft of American technology.

The US Trade Representative identified 1,300 product lines as potential targets, including aerospace, information and communication technology, and machinery. A complete list is due soon, to be followed by a 30-day consultation period.

Concern that trade conflicts could wreak havoc on the world economy rose as China, in response to Trump's tariff hikes on steel and aluminium, warned it could slap higher import duties on US goods including pork, apples and steel pipe.

China's Commerce Ministry urged Washington to negotiate a settlement, saying tariffs undermined the global trading system.

Trade wars?

"Everybody's pushing each other around to do some negotiating," said David Collins, chief operations officer at CMC China Manufacturing Consultants, which advises companies on setting up factories in China. 

"Trump is negotiating. He's pushing back on the Chinese, and the Chinese will push back."

On Thursday, investors fled stocks and bought bonds, which sent bond prices higher and yields lower. With interest rates falling, banks took some of the worst losses. Technology and industrial companies, basic materials makers and healthcare companies also fell sharply.

The S&P 500 index skidded 2.5 percent to 2,643.69. 

The Dow Jones industrial average shed 2.9 percent to 23,957.89. 

The Nasdaq composite gave up 2.4 percent to 7,166.68.

Google and Microsoft fall

Investors sold some of the market's biggest recent winners. 

Among technology companies, Microsoft fell 2.9 percent, Google parent Alphabet fell 3.7 percent and online retailer Amazon slid 2.3 percent.

Peter Donisanu, an investment strategy analyst for the Wells Fargo Investment Institute, said the risk of a damaging trade war was still low because the Trump administration was targeting specific goods that aren't central to China's economy. 

That could change if it puts tariffs on products like electronics or appliances imported from China.

"If the Trump administration really wanted to hurt China and start a trade war, then they would go after those larger sectors," he said.

China-based businessmen wondered whether the bluster was a negotiating tactic.

South Korean woes

The risk of a US-China trade war is a regional concern, given the myriad supply chains and other ties across Asia. 

For example, South Korea's largest trading partner is China. The US is its second-biggest.

"I'm worried that it would affect the national economy," said S E Kim, an employee at a construction company in Seoul. "If the US imposes tariffs on China like that, I think there would be some damage on us in the long term as well."

Concern over higher US tariffs on steel and aluminium eased somewhat when the Trump administration said some countries would be exempt. 

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said on Thursday that the tariffs wouldn't apply to the European Union, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Australia.

Out in the cold

Japan's trade minister described the US decision not to exclude Japanese exports as "extremely regrettable."

"We will continue our effort patiently to persuade the US to remove Japan from the list," Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko told reporters.

A traditional "safe haven" from risk, the Japanese yen rose to a 17-month high against the US dollar response to the jitters over trade.

The dollar fell to 104.85 yen from 105.28 yen in late trading on Thursday. The euro rose to $1.2336 from $1.2302.

Oil futures rallied. Benchmark US crude rose 70 cents to $65.00 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract shed 87 cents, or 1.3 percent, to close at $64.30 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, rose 59 cents to $68.97 a barrel in London.

Source: AP