WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump wants to move ahead with a plan to impose tariffs on US$200 billion (S$274 billion) in imports from China as soon as a public comment period concludes next week, according to six people familiar with the matter.
Asked to confirm the plan in an interview with Bloomberg News in the Oval Office on Thursday, Mr Trump smiled and said it was "not totally wrong". He also criticised management of the yuan, saying that China has devalued its currency in response to a recent slowdown in economic growth.
Companies and members of the public have until Thursday to submit comments on the proposed duties, which cover everything from selfie sticks to semiconductors.
The President plans to impose the tariffs once that deadline passes, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are not public.
Broadening the tariff battle would mark the most significant move yet in a months-long trade stand-off and dent China's growth prospects.
Data released yesterday will allay some concerns over the near-term outlook as China's official factory gauge unexpectedly strengthened last month following government measures to underpin demand.
"China is more prepared, mentally, this time than it was for the previous round of tariffs," said Mr Gai Xinzhe, an analyst at the Bank of China's Institute of International Finance in Beijing. "The scale is enormous and once the tariffs materialise, they will definitely send jitters through financial markets."
Trump's take on trade, N. Korea, Iran and more
Highlights of the Bloomberg News interview with President Donald Trump on Thursday.
WARNING TO WTO
If they don't shape up, I would withdraw from the WTO.
MR TRUMP, referring to the World Trade Organisation.
We are a much stronger country... Our country is stronger than it has ever been financially.
MR TRUMP, on US being "much stronger" than China in the trade row.
GOOD TIES WITH N. KOREAN LEADER
I have had a good relationship with Kim Jong Un, and I am not saying it won't change. It could change. The whole situation could change.
MR TRUMP, who said he can be patient with the North Korean leader, who has yet to take appreciable steps to give up nuclear weapons after the Singapore summit.
CURBING IRANIAN INFLUENCE
When I came in here, it was a question of when they would take over the Middle East. Now, it is a question of will they survive. It is a big difference in 1½ years.
MR TRUMP, who pulled the US from the 2015 international nuclear accord with Iran in May, accusing the Islamic republic of threatening Middle East security as it expands its regional influence. He reimposed sanctions on Iran last month.
SESSIONS SAFE FOR NOW
I just would love to have him do a great job.
MR TRUMP, who said he will keep Attorney-General Jeff Sessions at least until the November election despite the "illegal investigation" by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians in 2016.
DOING A GREAT JOB
I don't think they can impeach somebody that is doing a great job. You look at the economy, you look at jobs, you look at... what is going on with other countries. You look at trade deals. I am doing a great job.
MR TRUMP, on why Democrats should not impeach him.
Some of the people cautioned that Mr Trump has not made his final decision, and it is possible the administration may enact the duties in instalments. The US has so far imposed levies on US$50 billion of Chinese goods, with Beijing retaliating in kind.
It is also possible the President could announce the tariffs next week, but say they will take effect at a later date. The Trump administration waited about three weeks after announcing in mid-June that it was imposing tariffs on US$34 billion of Chinese goods before implementing them. The next stage of tariffs on US$16 billion of goods took hold last month.
China has threatened to retaliate by imposing duties on US$60 billion of US goods.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said yesterday: "So-called hardline, pressure-exerting methods of the US side won't work on China and are not helpful to resolving the problem."
China's position is to resolve the issue via pragmatic talks on an equal basis, which is what the international community wants to see, she added.
The Trump administration is finalising the list of Chinese targets and tariff rate, which could range from 10 per cent to 25 per cent, following six days of public hearings last month.
Mr Trump's plan to bring down his biggest hit yet on China comes as two-way trade talks show little signs of progress. He cut off negotiations with China because of what he perceives as Beijing's lack of cooperation in nuclear talks with North Korea, one of the people said.
At the interview, the President said the US is also making progress with Canada to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) as negotiators stepped up the pace of discussions to meet yesterday's deadline to reach an agreement. In a breakthrough on Monday, the US and Mexico announced a bilateral deal to replace Nafta.