The Trump administration is planning trade measures to force Beijing to crack down on intellectual-property theft and ease requirements that American companies share advanced technologies to gain entry to the Chinese market.
The administration is considering invoking a little-used provision of US trade law to investigate whether China’s intellectual property policies constitute “unfair trade practices,” according to people familiar with the matter.
That would pave the way for the US to impose sanctions on Chinese exporters or to further restrict the transfer of advanced technology to Chinese firms or to US-China joint ventures.
American business frustration with Chinese trade and market-access practices has mounted in recent years, with US business groups urging the government to take a tougher trade line with China. Many organisations have complained that the Trump administration hasn’t pushed hard enough in areas like intellectual property, as it has focused more on Chinese manufacturing and China’s $347 billion trade surplus with the US last year.
That discontent has intensified as China’s economy continued to expand and its computer and software sectors became bigger competitors internationally. Western firms fear that China will use the regulations to bar foreign investments in areas that Beijing targets for investment, including semiconductors, advanced-machine tools and artificial intelligence.
It is unclear how long the administration’s internal review will take before an announcement is made. Officials had at one point signalled that an announcement could come as soon as this week.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on the prospect of trade sanctions.
The White House has been wrestling in recent weeks with how to navigate trade relations with China following a stalemate during mid-July bilateral economic talks that yielded no concrete progress. Mr Trump in recent days has also expressed open disappointment with Chinese efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program and administration officials have been increasingly outspoken in their criticism of Chinese trade practices.
Mr Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, wrote an op-ed in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal blasting China, as well as the European Union, for “formidable nontariff trade barriers” and vowing to “use every available tool” to fight those limits.
The White House expects that a crackdown on alleged Chinese intellectual property expropriation would have widespread support among US businesses, which have complained about Chinese business practices.
But the response may be more divided, say industry officials. Those US companies that want to keep their most advanced technology from Chinese hands would probably back the move, while others that want to license technology to Chinese firms could find the measures a hindrance.
China could also retaliate by blocking US investments or making life tougher for US companies in China.
Still, any action on Chinese intellectual property is bound to be more popular with the business sector than other trade moves the president has made, including his decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as his threats to pull out of the North American Free Agreement and to impose tariffs on steel imports.
The Trump administration’s exploration of new trade remedies against Beijing is significant in that they would require dusting off long-ignored or little-used powers. In this case, one option under discussion is to use Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, which gives the US government the authority to investigate alleged wrongdoing by trading partners and decide by itself the relevant penalty — to act, in the eyes of critics, as judge, jury, and executioner.
Another option under discussion would be to invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a 1977 law that gives the president broad powers to regulate commerce after declaring a “national emergency.”
Widely used in the 1970s and 1980s, Section 301 cases have largely disappeared since the 1995 creation of the World Trade Organisation, which has its own dispute-settlement process. A main goal of the Geneva-based institution was to curb such unilateral trade actions, and to have them handled by a more neutral international arbiter. US administrations have over the past two decades decided to steer nearly all trade complaints through the WTO and have rarely touched Section 301.
But Trump aides have often said they didn’t consider WTO rules sufficient to deal with Chinese practices and have indicated they may resort to pre-WTO unilateral practices.
“If any other administration self-initiated a Section 301 investigation, I would have found it highly unusual,” said Chad Bown, a trade-remedy expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “But with Trump’s administration of US trade policy, it appears that even the most obscure and unused US law on the books is fair game.”
In May, more than four dozen US, European and Asian trade associations wrote a letter to the Communist Party group overseeing cybersecurity, for instance, complaining about a new law that the associations felt would require their companies to place data centres in China, find Chinese partners and transfer technology to the joint ventures.
“All countries have legitimate concerns over privacy and national security, but China is the principal country addressing these concerns by requiring foreign companies to transfer their technology and to surrender their brand and operating control in order to do business,” the group wrote.
Beijing generally argues that it is trying to protect itself from efforts by Western intelligence services to tap into Chinese computer systems.
By JACOB M. SCHLESINGER, BOB DAVIS
–Ian Talley contributed to this article.
Dow Jones Newswires