* MSCI Asia ex-Japan up 0.5 pct, Nikkei soars to 4-1/2-year high
* China exports beat forecasts
* Dollar touches 3-1/2-year peak against yen
* Gold weighed down as investors seek higher returns
* European shares likely edge higher
By Chikako Mogi
TOKYO, March 8 The dollar touched a fresh 3-1/2-year peak against the yen and Asian shares rose on Friday, as gains in U.S. stocks on solid data and Chinese exports beating forecast underpinned investor risk sentiment while denting demand for safe-haven gold.
European markets are seen edging higher, with financial spreadbetters predicting London's FTSE 100, Paris's CAC-40 and Frankfurt's DAX would open up about 0.2 percent. A 0.1 percent rise in U.S. stock futures pointed to a steady Wall Street start.
Preceding the release of U.S. nonfarm payrolls, China said February exports grew 21.8 percent from a year earlier, more than double the estimated rise, while imports fell 15.2 percent, deeper than an 8.8 percent drop forecast.
"The growth in exports probably reflected an improving global economic environment, including the United States, while the drop in imports is likely distorted by the effect from the Lunar Year holidays during the month," said Hirokazu Yuihama, a senior strategist at Daiwa Securities in Tokyo.
"The fall in imports does not suggest weakness in domestic demand and the trade data overall doesn't change the outlook for a moderate recovery in China," he said.
The MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rose 0.5 percent, on track for a weekly gain of 0.8 percent.
Australian shares added 0.3 percent while the Australian dollar briefly rose after the Chinese data to around $1.0265 before easing to trade down 0.2 percent at 1.0244. New Zealand shares closed at a record high.
Hong Kong shares surged 1.8 percent while Shanghai shares rose 0.3 percent.
"We see economic recovery in China already, so it will be important to see how that is translated into the earnings recovery for Chinese companies," said Benjamin Chang, chief executive officer of LBN Advisors, a firm that manages more than $400 million in two China funds.
Investors now awaited key U.S. jobs data due at 1330 GMT for further signs of strength in the world's largest economy. Analysts expect a rise of 160,000 jobs in February.
Friday's payrolls report is key to gauging the U.S. Federal Reserve's policy course as the Fed will keep its near-zero rate stance until the unemployment rate falls to 6.5 percent, as long as inflation does not threaten to top 2.5 percent.
Thursday's data showing an unexpected drop in new initial jobless claims benefits last week indicated a steady economic improvement and drove the Dow Jones industrial average to an intraday record for a third consecutive session. The dollar extended its climb against the yen to a peak of 95.45.
"If the jobs data turns out to be good I think we will start to see a 95 yen to 98 yen range," said Hiroshi Maeba, head of FX trading Japan for UBS in Tokyo.
Japan's Nikkei stock average closed up 2.6 percent at its highest since September 2008.
As the dollar is increasingly bought on a firming U.S. economy, the yen has come under renewed selling pressure due to expectations the Bank of Japan will take bold reflationary measures when a new leadership takes over later this month.
The yen extended its decline against the euro to a low of 124.21 yen before inching back up to 124.85.
PATCHY GLOBAL ECONOMY
European Central Bank President Mario Draghi on Thursday suggested the bank was not in a hurry to act while noting that any threat of contagion to other euro zone members from Italy's inconclusive election results was muted.
The euro was down 0.1 percent at $1.3091, keeping most of its gains after rallying more than 1 percent on Draghi's comments on Thursday.
As U.S. equities firmed, the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury yield remained elevated at 1.997 percent in Asia.
Spot gold also eased 0.1 percent to $1,576.55 an ounce as investors sought higher returns and abandoned no interest-bearing bullion. For the past month since the dollar bounced off its lows against a basket of key currencies, gold has been capped below a key technical resistance of its 14-day moving average, which stood at $1,583.42 on Friday.
"Improving U.S. fundamentals and a 'positive' rise in the dollar are bostering stocks and denting gold's appeal because its investment return lags those assets which are leveraged, or are riskier," said Koichiro Kamei, managing director at financial research firm Market Strategy Institute.
Analysts expect gold to hold ranges above an immediate support of $1,545-50, with a clear break below $1,521 through $1,500 signalling the next phase of weakness.
Southeast Asian bourses remained among the region's top performers, with Indonesia advancing further to reach a record high for a third straight session.
Foreigners have raised their investment in Indonesia's government bond market to record levels this year, while also pitching into the stock market.
U.S. crude fell 0.3 percent to $91.33 a barrel and Brent also fell 0.3 percent to $110.87.