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Update: Stocks sink as China hits back with $3B in tariffs

China's commerce ministry announced plans March 23 to impose tariffs on up to $3 billion of U.S. imports in response to U.S. duties on steel and aluminum products, as stocks slid on fears of a trade war.

China will implement measures against 128 products in two stages if the two countries are unable to reach an agreement on trade issues, said a commerce ministry spokesperson.

President Donald Trump in early March signed orders imposing tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum imports and on March 22 unveiled plans for levies on up to $60 billion of Chinese goods. The U.S. Trade Representative's Office filed a challenge with the World Trade Organization on March 23, charging that China's "unfair technology practices" violate WTO rules and discriminate against imported foreign technology.

The S&P 500 stocks index closed down 2.10% at 2588.26 and the Nasdaq lost 2.43% to finish below 7000 at 6992.67. Earlier, China's Shanghai SE Composite Index had closed down 3.39%, and Japan's Nikkei 225 Index slumped by 4.51%. The sell-off carried over into Europe, where the DAX tumbled by nearly 1.8% in Frankfurt. Germany is China's largest trading partner.

The yen, euro and Swiss franc gained against the dollar.

"This can turn ugly on a global scale very quickly," Robert Carnell, chief economist, head of research, Asia-Pacific at ING, said in a note to clients, "And synchronous global growth or not, markets are right to be pricing in a more subdued outlook."

China's commerce ministry said the first stage plans to impose 15% tariff on 120 products involving U.S. exports of fresh fruit, dried fruit and nut products, wine, modified ethanol, American ginseng, and seamless steel pipes. The second stage proposes imposing a 25% tariff on eight U.S. products such as pork and aluminum.

The ministry spokesperson said the U.S. practice of restricting the import of products based on "national security seriously interferes with the normal international trade order."

He said China will take legal action under the framework of the World Trade Organization to maintain the stability of global trading rules. The ministry official added, however, that he hoped China could resolve issues with the U.S. through dialogue.