President Trump signed two executive actions Monday targeting China’s trade practices, the first step in a process that could result in tariffs on Chinese imports, even as the U.S. seeks more help from Beijing on North Korea’s weapons buildup.
“This is just the beginning,” Mr. Trump said at the White House. “We will defend our workers.”
The memos direct U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to determine whether an investigation is needed into alleged unfair Chinese trade practices and intellectual property theft.
The president said the theft of intellectual property in the U.S. costs billions of dollars per year.
“For too long, this wealth has been drained from our country while Washington has done nothing,” Mr. Trump said. “They have never done anything about it. But Washington will turn a blind eye no longer.”
China has been accused of spying and hacking U.S. companies to obtain proprietary information on software and other U.S. products. One report said the practices cost the U.S. economy up to $600 billion annually.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said the president’s move was toothless.
“President Trump’s pattern continues: Tough talk on China, but weaker action than anyone could ever imagine,” Mr. Schumer said. “To make an announcement that they’re going to decide whether to have an investigation on China’s well-documented theft of our intellectual property is another signal to China that it is OK to keep stealing.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California called it “a necessary step, but far short of the comprehensive action American workers need.” Republicans generally supported the president’s action. Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, praised the move to begin what is known as a “301” investigation, as part of the administration’s “continued efforts to protect American jobs and ensure trade is fair for American businesses and workers.”
China warned Mr. Trump against taking trade action aimed at Beijing on Monday, saying the president’s move looks like retaliation for the ongoing North Korea crisis.
“Given Trump’s transactional approach to foreign affairs, it is impossible to look at the matter without taking into account his increasing disappointment at what he deems as China’s failure to bring into line the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the state-run China Daily newspaper said. “But instead of advancing the United States’ interests, politicising trade will only acerbate the country’s economic woes, and poison the overall China-U.S. relationship.”
The action comes amid rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, as Mr. Trump has expressed frustration with China for not doing more to discourage North Korea from expanding its missile and nuclear weapons programs.
“I think China can do a lot more,” Mr. Trump told reporters Thursday. “And I think China will do a lot more.”
North Korea has threatened to fire missiles at the U.S. territory of Guam; Mr. Trump said last week that the U.S. is “locked and loaded” for a possible military confrontation with North Korea.
Just 10 days ago, China supported a U.S. resolution at the United Nations Security Council to impose tougher economic sanctions on North Korea. In a phone call Friday, Mr. Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for supporting the U.N. vote, and the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
Mr. Trump’s executive action amounts to a request that his trade representative determine whether an investigation is needed under the Trade Act of 1974. If an investigation begins, the U.S. government could seek remedies either through or outside of the World Trade Organization.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire-service reports.