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Trump Administration to Launch Probe of Alleged Chinese Technology Theft

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08/12/2017 | 06:44pm CEST
By Jacob Schlesinger 

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration announced plans Saturday to pressure China over alleged intellectual property theft, adding the threat of trade retaliation to an ongoing campaign seeking greater cooperation from Beijing in the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Aides said President Donald Trump will sign a directive Monday ordering his trade representative to start a formal probe into whether Chinese government agencies and companies were unfairly acquiring valuable patents and licenses from U.S. firms, either through outright theft, or by pressuring Americans to turn over their inventions as the price of entry into China's market.

"Such theft not only damages American companies, but can threaten our national security," a senior administration official said in a Saturday morning briefing for reporters.

Officials at the briefing stressed that while they were casting a spotlight on what they consider a major irritant in bilateral commercial relations, they weren't rushing into action. They said Monday's directive would launch a study into whether a formal trade investigation was warranted, and that probe would take a year or more. They declined to discuss what sorts of penalties the U.S. might impose against China, saying that question was "premature."

The administration made the announcement a day after Mr. Trump held a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss escalating tensions over North Korea's rapidly advancing nuclear weapons program. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he would cut Beijing slack over trade issues if he felt the Chinese were being helpful in reining in Pyongyang.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier in the month that a new trade investigation over China's alleged forced technology transfers was in the works and had been planned for an early August announcement. But that was delayed until after an Aug. 5 U.N. Security Council vote imposing new financial penalties on North Korea, which China supported.

Asked if Mr. Trump discussed the pending trade investigation with Mr. Xi on Friday, an official pointed to the official White House summary of the call, which didn't mention trade issues.

The White House aides said the new trade probe wasn't tied to the administration's North Korea strategy, despite the president's earlier linkage of the subjects. "These are totally unrelated events," one official said. "Trade is trade. National security is national security."

Write to Jacob Schlesinger at jacob.schlesinger@wsj.com

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