By Lisa Twaronite

TOKYO (Reuters) – A rally in China’s stock markets to seven year highs on Monday kept an index of Asian shares near its highest level since September, as weak Chinese trade data hardened expectations for more economic stimulus measures from Beijing.

The Chinese markets’ bull run has been fuelled by speculative buying on hopes of fresh steps to boost an economy struggling for momentum, with first quarter gross domestic product data due to be released on Wednesday expected to showed 7.0 percent growth.

“More stimulus measures are needed in the future,” said Nie Wen, a strategist at Hwabao Trust in Shanghai.

Exports contracted 15 percent in March from a year earlier, in a surprise drop that left China with a trade surplus of $ 3.1 billion last month, much smaller than forecasts for a $ 45.4 billion (31.08 billion pounds) trade gap.

“Exports were weak in the Q1, and they won’t pick up soon given uncertainties from the U.S., Europe and emerging countries,” said Yao Xuekang, an analyst at Essence Securities in Beijing.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was up about 0.1 percent on the day, moving back toward its highest levels since September touched in the previous week.

Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index (.HSI) added 0.9 percent, approaching last week’s seven-year highs on money inflows from mainland China investors who are seeking cheaper shares. The Shanghai Composite Index (.SSEC) was up 1.5 percent.

Japan’s Nikkei stock average (.N225) was nearly flat in afternoon trade, after rising above the 20,000 on Friday for the first time in 15 years.

Wall Street marked solid gains for both the day and the week on Friday, while the pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 share index (.FTEU3) reached a 15-year high and Germany’s DAX (.GDAXI) rose to a record.

A renewed drop in the euro powered the European gains, with the single currency slumping to a 3-1/2 week low of $ 1.0567 on Friday. On Monday, it slipped about 0.1 percent on the day to $ 1.0594 (EUR=).

“We think the euro will fall below parity against the dollar by the end of the year because of the ECB’s easing and low returns on capital in the euro zone,” said Shin Kadota, chief FX strategist at Barclays in Tokyo.

Against its Japanese counterpart, the dollar added 0.1 percent to 120.11 yen (JPY=), with expectations of higher U.S. interest rates while Japan’s stay low bolstering the greenback in the long term.

The dollar index (.DXY) stood at 99.490, up about 0.2 percent on the day, and moving back toward its 12-year peak of 100.390 set last month.

Crude oil prices edged up after logging weekly gains as an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme seemed more elusive, lessening the chances of a rapid return of Iranian oil to the market.

Brent (LCOc1) was up about 0.1 percent at $ 57.90 a barrel, after adding 5.3 percent for the week. U.S. crude (CLc1) edged up about 0.2 percent to $ 51.76 after an increase of 5.0 percent last week, its fourth consecutive weekly rise.

World powers and Iran announced the interim accord last week, but on Thursday, Iranian leaders said all sanctions on the country must be lifted on the same day as any final agreement.

Spot gold (XAU=) fell about 0.3 percent on the day to $ 1,203.90 an ounce, after snapping a three-week winning streak on a stronger dollar.

(Additional reporting by Beijing bureau, and Hideyuki Sano in Tokyo; Editing by Richard Borsuk)