US curbs China nuclear exports as Trump warns that Americans are not ‘stupid’

President Trump, flanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and National Security Adviser John Bolton, arrives for the annual meeting of the Inter-Agency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in Washington on Oct 11, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States said on Thursday (Oct 11) that it will increasingly restrict civilian nuclear exports to China as President Donald Trump vowed a hard line on trade, bluntly warning against thinking that Americans are "stupid".

The US Energy Department said it would make it more difficult to ship nuclear technology to China, one of the few growing markets for new plants as the Asian economy tries to meet rising electricity demand through low-carbon sources.

"The United States cannot ignore the national security implications of China's efforts to obtain nuclear technology outside of established processes of US-China civil nuclear cooperation," Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in a statement.

The measures are the latest salvo in a widening US drive to pressure China, with the Trump administration recently slapping US$250 billion (S$343 billion) in tariffs on the country's goods.

The Energy Department said it would not end exports to China but would show greater scrutiny and that there "will be a presumption of denial" for new licences related to the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp.

The company was indicted last year along with a naturalised US citizen on charges of conspiring to develop sensitive nuclear material with US know-how without going through the required approval process.

The US already carefully reviews nuclear exports through the Energy Department's so-called Part 810 authorisations, which verify if the technology goes to peaceful use and will not be sent to a third country.

"For decades, China has maintained a concerted, central government-run strategy to acquire nuclear technology to gain economic advantage," a US official said on condition of anonymity.

The official acknowledged that China, which is racing to expand clean energy capacity to keep up with fast-rising demand, remained important as a nuclear export market.

"We understand that the US industry may suffer in the short term from this decision," he said.

"However, China's concerted effort to emulate and displace US nuclear products could cause the permanent loss of global markets and domestic jobs in the long run," he said.

Former president Barack Obama in 2015 signed off on an extension of nuclear cooperation between the US and China, with his administration arguing that Beijing had moved to tighten controls as part of renewal negotiations.

Relations between the world's two largest economies have soured sharply, however, with Mr Trump earlier on Thursday vowing to inflict economic pain on China if it does not blink in a trade war.

"They lived too well for too long and, frankly, I guess they think that the Americans are stupid people. Americans are not stupid people," Mr Trump said in an interview on "Fox and Friends".

The mogul-turned-president boasted that his tariffs had already "had a big impact".

"Their economy has gone down very substantially," he said.

"I have a lot more to do if I want to do it. I don't want to do it but they have to come to the table."

Mr Trump is pressing China to improve trading conditions for US products and to end what US businesses say is widespread theft of their intellectual property. China has responded by imposing counter tariffs, which the Trump administration alleges show political interference by targeting products from key states in next month's congressional elections.

The International Monetary Fund this week cited the trade war as it lowered its 2019 growth forecast for China, which is set to see its slowest expansion since 1990.

The IMF also lowered estimates for the US and the global economy as a whole.

Mr Trump renewed his charge that past presidents Obama and George W. Bush "let China get out of control" through the massive US imports of manufactured goods.

"We have helped rebuild China more than any other factor. We have helped rebuild it. I said it's over."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.