By Shinichi Saoshiro
TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian stocks fell sharply on Monday and the dollar stepped back from its recent highs as surprisingly weak Chinese trade data rattled investors already on edge over the crisis in Ukraine.
European shares were seen opening largely flat with the poor Chinese data tempering optimism from a robust U.S. nonfarm payrolls report.
Financial spreadbetters predicted Britain's FTSE 100 <.FTSE> would open as much as 0.06 percent higher, Germany's DAX <.GDAXI> up 0.13 percent and France's CAC 40 <.FCHI> add as much as 0.18 percent.
Investors greeted the new week in Asia on a cautious note after data issued on Saturday showed China's exports unexpectedly tumbled in February, swinging the trade balance into deficit and adding to fears of a slowdown in the world's second-largest economy.
The soft Chinese data put a damper on risk sentiment, which had been temporarily boosted by stronger-than-expected U.S. nonfarm payrolls out on Friday showing employers had added 175,000 jobs to their payrolls last month, up from 129,000 new positions in January.
MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> lost 1.4 percent, and Tokyo's Nikkei stock average <.N225> shed 1.0 percent, retreating from Friday's six-week high.
China's CSI300 index <.CSI300> slid to its lowest in nearly nine months, and Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index <.HSI> shed 1.8 percent. <.SS>
U.S. stock futures fell 0.4 percent from their record closing high on Friday.
"Fundamentally speaking, data out of the U.S. has a bigger underlying market impact, but the psychological effect from Chinese economic indicators cannot be overlooked. The Nikkei's attempt to chase further highs being derailed is a prime example," said Koji Fukaya, president at FPG Securities in Tokyo.
"The rise in yields after the upbeat U.S. data supports the dollar, but latest indicators out of China dampens risk appetite and may foil the currency's advances against the yen," Fukaya said.
Russian forces tightened their grip on Crimea, seizing another border post and a military airfield, fanning tensions ahead of a planned Moscow-backed referendum on Sunday on whether the Black Sea peninsula should join Russia.
Diplomatic efforts to cool the crisis in Ukraine calmed markets toward the end of last week, but rising tensions over Russia's intervention in Crimea have kept investors on edge.
Adding to the somber mood, a Malaysia Airlines flight with 239 people on board vanished en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur in the early hours of Saturday, with questions mounting over possible security lapses and whether a bomb or hijacking could have brought down the plane.
The U.S. dollar index <.DXY>, a composite of six currency pairs dipped 0.1 percent to 79.683 after touching a high of 79.847 on Friday after the U.S. jobs data.
Against the safe haven yen the dollar stood at 103.12, pulling away from a six-week high of 103.77 hit on Friday.
The euro remained near recent highs, with bulls still heartened by the European Central Bank's reluctance last week to take further policy action.
The single currency traded at $1.3879, within striking distance of a 2-1/2 year peak of $1.3915 reached on Friday.
China's yuan opened trade at 6.1554 per dollar on Monday, down 0.5 percent from Friday's close of 6.1260, before moving to 6.1451. The yuan as well as Chinese short-term rates fell amid expectations Beijing is quietly easing monetary policy to buttress wobbly economic growth.
Gold edged lower for a second straight session on Monday after the strong U.S. jobs data eased fears of an economic slowdown and dimmed the metal's safe-haven appeal.
But underlining the fact that the crisis in the Ukraine was likely to remain a key theme for the precious metal, data from the Commodity Futures Trading showed that hedge funds and money managers raised their bullish bets in gold futures and options for a fourth consecutive week as geopolitical tensions boosted speculative interest to its highest in more than a year.
In wake of disappointing Chinese data, Brent crude declined 55 cents to $108.45 a barrel, ending two straight days of gains. Geopolitical tensions in Ukraine and Libya limited the falls.
"Oil pulled back because of the latest data from China despite continuing tensions over Ukraine," said Victor Shum, vice-president of energy consultancy IHS Energy Insight. "The ongoing situation in Ukraine will put a high floor on oil prices and lead to more volatility."
The weak data also fanned concerns over China's metals industry. Three-month copper on the London Metal Exchange dropped 1.6 percent to $6,674.75 a tonne. It earlier slid as far as $6,608 a tonne, its weakest since June 25, when it stopped at $6,602, the lowest since July 2010.
(Additional reporting by Manash Goswami in Singapore; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Eric Meijer)