Donald Trump sends tough signal to China on unfair IP, tech practices

WASHINGTON - The United States in effect served notice on China on Monday (Aug 14) by opening an investigation into unfair trade practices focused on intellectual property (IP) and advanced technology.

But punitive action is still about a year away, and conclusions may also depend on the outcomes of the current international pressure campaign on North Korea led by the US, but in which China has a key role as the Pyongyang regime's economic lifeline.

While the US administration has not linked trade issues with progress on North Korea, the President has explicitly linked the two. China insists that any action on trade must conform to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, and must not be linked to North Korea, where it says Beijing's influence is limited.

Mr Trump's memo directs US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to determine whether to launch an investigation - which in turn could give the President authority to take measures under Section 301 of its Trade Act, against China if it finds that country is damaging American interests by stealing IP or unfairly forcing transfer of technology.

For the US, this has long been a major bone of contention with China. A 2017 report of the US's IP Commission on "The Theft of American Intellectual Property" estimated that in 2015 "anywhere from US$58 billion to US$118 billion of counterfeit and pirated tangible goods may have entered the United States."

Yet the US business community is not entirely united, analysts say.

"Some see the potential for retaliation the Chinese could take against their commercial or market access issues wholly unrelated to IP" Amy Celico, a former senior director for China at the USTR and currently head of the China team at the consultancy Albright Stonebridge Group, told The Straits Times.

"But other industries feel they are facing an existential threat to their ability to operate in the Chinese market and they agree that something has to happen, the administration has to stand up to China on unfair trade practices."

 
 

Mr Trump told journalists at a brief event where he signed the memo "Washington will turn a blind eye no longer."

"I'm directing the United States Trade Representative to examine China's policies, practices, and actions with regard to the forced transfers of American technology and the theft of American intellectual property."

 

"We will stand up to any country that unlawfully forces American companies to transfer their valuable technology as a condition of market access. We will combat the counterfeiting and piracy that destroys American jobs, we will enforce the rules of fair and reciprocal trade that form the foundation of responsible commerce" he said.

Left unsaid was the question of North Korea. The US has been pressing Beijing which accounts for some 90 per cent of North Korea's trade, to pull the plug on Pyongyang to force the regime to stop its nuclear missile programme.

On August 11 Mr Trump said "We lose hundreds of billions of dollars a year on trade with China. They know how I feel. It's not going to continue like that but if China helps us, I feel a lot differently toward trade."

"Certainly it seems the administration is trying to use every possible tool in dealing with this critical issue of North Korea" Ms Celico said in a phone interview.

"The Chinese have come out quite forcefully as they see it as a stick the administration is using to get China to be more aggressive in dealing with North Korea, and they are disavowing any kind of linkage as destabilising for the bilateral relationship."

"The problem for President Trump is he's the one who linked these two issues. Looking into launching an investigation rather than launching an investigation, would seem to be responsive to Chinese pressure."

Ms Yun Sun, a Fellow at the Stimson Centre in Washington, told The Straits Times: "It's an investigation at this stage, it could take a year."

"With the Party Congress coming up President Xi Jinping does not want any major instability in foreign affairs. Also, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are supposed to visit China to pave the way for President Trump's visit."

"I think the Chinese will appear to be angry but I don't see any substantive retaliation on trade" she said.