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Japan's goods trade surplus plunges 90% on weak exports to China

This file photo shows Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s assembly plant in Kurashiki, Japan, in 2016. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan's goods trade surplus plunged 90.3 percent in April from a year earlier to 60.4 billion yen ($546 million), hit by weak exports to China amid U.S.-China trade tensions, government data showed Wednesday.

The result represented the third straight month of black ink, according to a preliminary report by the Finance Ministry. Exports fell 2.4 percent to 6.66 trillion yen, down for the fifth consecutive month, while imports rose 6.4 percent to 6.60 trillion yen on a rise in crude oil prices.

Oil imports from Iran had grown in the reporting month before U.S. President Donald Trump's administration on May 2 ended waivers allowing Japan and seven other parties to import oil from the Middle Eastern nation without facing American sanctions.

By region, China-bound exports, including semiconductor manufacturing equipment and auto parts, dropped 6.3 percent from a year earlier. The decrease indicated sluggish capital investment and production activities in the country.

Imports from the world's second-largest economy climbed 5.9 percent, leaving Japan with a deficit of 318.3 billion yen.

An escalating trade war between the world's two biggest economies has taken a toll on Japan's exports, a key pillar of its economic growth.

The trade tensions have escalated since earlier this month, with Washington raising tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese products to 25 percent from 10 percent. In a retaliatory move, Beijing said it will increase levies on $60 billion worth of U.S. products to a maximum of 25 percent from 10 percent from June 1.

Economists predict the situation could worsen if the administration of President Trump imposes up to 25 percent tariffs on another $300 billion worth of Chinese imports.

Masato Koike, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, said the Chinese economy is expected to remain weak for the time being, although stimulus steps by its government will likely help stop further deterioration.

"It's hard to imagine Japan's trade balance would improve amid China's slowing economy and relatively high levels of crude oil prices," said Koike. He added the balance could fall into red again.

Among other trading partners, Japan's trade surplus with the United States expanded 17.7 percent to 723.2 billion yen, helped by solid demand for automobiles.

With the European Union, Japan had a surplus of 3.4 billion yen, supported by auto exports to Belgium.

Against Asian countries, including China, Japan's surplus dropped 36.8 percent to 450.1 billion yen.

The figures were compiled on a customs-cleared basis.

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