WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump said he had to confront China over trade even if it caused short-term harm to the US economy because Beijing had been cheating Washington for decades.
His strongly worded comments on Tuesday came hours before his government announced approval of an US$8 billion (S$11.1 billion) sale of Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, a move sure to draw Beijing's ire and further dim prospects for a quick trade deal.
On Monday, Vice-President Mike Pence had poked China on another sensitive topic, Hong Kong, calling on Beijing to respect the integrity of the former British colony's laws in its response to mass protests there.
"Somebody had to take China on," Mr Trump told reporters during a White House visit by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, when asked about wide-ranging tariffs he had imposed on imports from China. "This is something that had to be done. The only difference is I am doing it," he said.
"China has been ripping this country off for 25 years, for longer than that... It's about time whether it's good for our country or bad for our country, short term. Long term, it's imperative that somebody does this," he said.
China's Foreign Ministry appeared to downplay the comments.
"That the two sides have differences in issues of trade and the economy is not something to be scared of. The key is to resolve the issues through dialogue," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing yesterday.
Mr Trump's tariffs and threats of more to come have roiled global markets and unnerved investors as the trade dispute between the world's two largest economies stretches into its second year with no end in sight.
Growing concerns that the trade war could trigger a possible US recession weighed on financial markets last week and seemed to put administration officials on edge about whether the economy would hold up through the November 2020 presidential election.
US stock markets slumped last week on recession fears, with all three major US indexes closing down about 3 per cent on Wednesday last week, although they pared their losses by Friday.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNBC that American and Chinese officials were expected to speak by telephone about the trade dispute over the next week to 10 days, followed by a possible face-to-face meeting.