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Trump Administration to Launch Probe of Alleged Chinese Technology Theft -- Update

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08/12/2017 | 06:48pm 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."

The new probe does signal a bit of a hardening shift in Trump administration's China trade policy, as it is the first White House trade directive aimed directly at Beijing. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump regularly blasted the U.S.'s $347 billion trade deficit with China, and vowed to take swift, drastic retaliation if he were elected, from across-the-board tariffs to branding Beijing a "currency manipulator."

But the early months of Mr. Trump's presidency have seen a considerably softer tone toward China over trade. He quickly dropped the campaign-trail threats, and during a genial April summit with Mr. Xi at his Mar-a-Lago Florida resort, the two countries launched a new "comprehensive economic dialogue" aimed at resolving bilateral commercial disputes amicably. A month later, China announced some modest market-opening moves, like ending a 14-year ban on U.S. beef imports, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross declared economic ties between the world's two largest economies were "hitting a new high."

But the first round of economic dialogue talks in mid-July were tense and ended up with no agreements. Officials said Saturday that impasse was one factor behind the decision to launch the new trade review.

In focusing on China's voracious appetite for American intellectual property, the Trump administration responding to a longstanding complaint by Western trade groups, who say the country's industrial policies effectively force foreign companies in sectors such as autos to transfer technology to stay in the market.

Beijing has been emboldened by the growing strength of its own companies to make more demands of foreign firms, industry executives say, and the government is careful to keep regulations vague. U.S. high-tech companies have struck a string of investments and technology-sharing agreements in software, semiconductors and other areas in the past couple of years, often under pressure from officials in closed-door meetings.

China's government rejects assertions that it forces foreign companies to transfer technology or permits infringement of intellectual property. Premier Li Keqiang denied it was using industrial policies to strong-arm foreign companies into turning over technology, telling a World Economic Forum meeting in Dalian in June that "such cooperation is voluntary and helps companies expand in the Chinese market and even in third countries."

While many U.S. companies and policy makers agree Chinese forced technology transfer is a problem, they also say it is difficult to figure out a solution.

One challenge is that many U.S. firms are reluctant to lodge formal complaints, making it difficult for trade officials to make their case.

"An important question going forward will be whether U.S. companies and trade associations who have highlighted the problem will actually come forward and assist our government in the investigation," said Michael Wessel, a member of the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Or, he added, "whether they will hide the facts fearful that our government won't follow through, that the Chinese will retaliate against their interests or that they'll have to admit what's happened to their critical assets."

Another question is just what remedy the U.S. government might pursue if it felt it had a case. Options might include imposing new limits on technologies that U.S. firms could license to China, or imposing new limits on Chinese investment in the U.S. But those would likely draw complaints from U.S. firms, and may contradict other policy goals. Mr. Trump personally touted China's Foxconn Technology Group's announcement in July to build a new display panel factory in Wisconsin.

The new China probe also marks a noticeable change in the process for how the Trump administration is processing trade policies, and suggests that a newly more organized and measured way to proceed with those complaints may be emerging.

Earlier Trump trade threats were made seeking swift action, and were done without broad consultation from stakeholders, drew widespread concern from business groups and lawmakers. Among them, an April promise to impose new steel and aluminum tariffs by June -- a plan that remains stalled amid resistance. Mr. Trump also in April threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but backed down after intense lobbying from allies, business groups, lawmakers and his own aides. He instead agreed to renegotiate the pact with Canada and Mexico, a process that begins Wednesday.

In choosing the China trade probe, Mr. Trump is targeting an area that business groups and Republican and Democratic lawmakers have identified as a concern. His aides Saturday also stressed that in contrast with the rushed earlier attempts at handling trade matters, they were setting no deadline and that any investigation would closely follow intricate procedures, including discussions with Beijing.

Before making any decisions on an investigation, the trade representative "would consult with the appropriate advisory committees," one official said, and "if the investigation is instituted, we would consult with China. We would give interested parties the opportunity to comment. There would likely be a hearing. And these investigations can take as much as a year before we reach a conclusion."

Eva Dou in Beijing contributed to this article.

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

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