US president Donald Trump took the first steps toward imposing tariffs on US$50 billion (NZ$69 billion) in Chinese goods and limiting China's ability to invest in the US technology industry Thursday, saying the moves were a response to Beijing's history of forcing US companies to surrender their trade secrets to do business in China.
The president directed US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to announce a proposed list of products to be hit with tariff increases within 15 days. After a public comment period, the final list, designed to target Chinese products that benefited from improper access to US technology, will be made public.
"The end objective of this is to get China to modify its unfair trading practices," said Everett Eissenstat, deputy assistant to the president for international economic affairs.
The White House expects the new taxes, which could reach up to 1,300 specific imports, will have a "minimal impact" upon consumers, but markets were down sharply Thursday morning in apprehension.
Trump also ordered Lighthizer to complain to the World Trade Organization about China's discriminatory licensing practices for foreign companies, an effort US officials hope will draw support from US allies in Europe and Japan.
On Capitol Hill Thursday, Lighthizer indicated that several US allies would be spared unrelated tariffs on imported steel and aluminium - at least temporarily - while they negotiate possible permanent exemptions.
As he had said on Wednesday, Lighthizer told the Senate Finance Committee that the European Union, Argentina, Australia, Brazil and South Korea will not be hit by the tariffs, which take effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Trump already had exempted Canada and Mexico from the import levies for the duration of talks aimed at renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement,
Under the measures targeting Beijing announced Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will draw up new investment restrictions to address concerns about Chinese investors, including state-sponsored investment funds, acquiring American companies to gain access to their technology.
Since taking office 14 months ago, the president's remarks on China have swung between effusive praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping and tough talk about its trade practices. In recent months, Trump has adopted an increasingly bellicose tone, with the White House billing Thursday's action as "targeting China's economic aggression" and the president's trade agenda released in February labelling the country a "hostile" economic power.
"China is engaged in practices which harm this country," said Peter Navarro, director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy.
Trump's trade moves potentially mark a sharp break with decades of growing US economic engagement with China, which began in the late 1970s as the country emerged from Maoist autarky.
Years of commercial delegations and diplomatic dialogue saw trade between the two countries mushroom to $635 billion from $116 billion in 2000. Yet at the same time, US companies complained about strict restraints on their operations in the Chinese market. Government regulations typically limited them to a minority stake alongside a local partner.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations sought to persuade the Chinese to embrace more fully a market-oriented policy. Through 2013, when a high-level Communist Party conclave proclaimed a "decisive role" for the market and officials promised to pare back the state's role in the economy, US officials believed China was headed in the right direction.
"That process has failed," said Navarro.
Trump administration officials now say that China's economic policies are distorting global markets for key products such as steel. and threaten to have the same effect on more advanced industries like semiconductors and artificial intelligence.
Washington's long-standing belief that increased economic ties between the world's two largest economies would benefit both the Chinese and American peoples have been scrapped by the Trump team. "China benefits far more from the US-China relationship than the US does," Navarro said.