US set for China tariffs by Friday as trade diplomat says Trump has tools

Pollution being emitted from steel factories in Hancheng, Shaanxi province on Feb 17, 2018.
Pollution being emitted from steel factories in Hancheng, Shaanxi province on Feb 17, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump will likely announce tariffs on Chinese imports by Friday (March 23), a source in the administration said, as the top US trade diplomat told lawmakers he had the tools to strike back over Chinese theft of US tech know-how.

Reuters reported last week that the president could target up to US$60 billion (S$79 billion) in imports from China.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said that if the measures went ahead, a mix of tariffs and restrictions on investment could be used.

"We are losing that to China in ways that are not reflective of the underlying economics," Lighthizer told the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, a top economic policy committee, on Wednesday (March 21).

"The remedies, in my judgment at least, would be one, doing something on the tariff front, and two, doing something on the investment front, and then perhaps other things," Lighthizer, a lawyer and veteran trade negotiator said.

The United States charges that the Chinese government and companies have stolen the intellectual property rights of US companies and that damages run into hundreds of billions of dollars.

China has said it will strike back if the US presses ahead, although it has stressed targeted measures.

Lighthizer said that Chinese high technology products would be targeted in any tariffs, although a wide range of industry groups including apparel makers fear they could be hit and have launched lobbying campaigns to head off the move.

Chinese companies are already subject to tighter investment rules in the United States and there are proposals in Congress to more tightly control inward and outward investment with China.

Washington has called for Beijing to act to cut its exports to the United States by US$100 billion, a figure that is equivalent to around four per cent of Chinese exports. That and other trade actions from the Trump administration, have triggered talk of a global trade war.

Targeting US$60 billion in Chinese exports as part of a remedy for breaches of US intellectual property rights is seen as unlikely to trigger a massive response from Beijing, which has already said it could target US agricultural exports.

Trump's one substantial move on tariffs aimed at striking at Chinese overproduction of steel and aluminum that has depressed global prices has had a mixed impact.

Exemptions for Canada and Mexico, America's partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement, have triggered a rush by other allies to avoid the tariffs. Lighthizer said that talks were under way with the European Union, Argentina and Australia.

Talks could commence soon with Brazil, he added, noting that Washington hoped to resolve the issue of exemptions by the end of April.