Either President Trump is about to get tough on China over trade or the White House wants Beijing to think he's about to get tough on trade. The White House is putting the word out that the president thinks China is ripping off American businesses and aims to take legal action to protect intellectual property rights, with outlets including the New York Times, Politico, and Axios quoting sources to that effect. The gist of the stories is that Trump has been holding back on such a move because he's been seeking China's help on reining in North Korea. But with little progress on that front, Trump is ready to act, perhaps as early as this week. Specifically, he would direct US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to open an investigation against Beijing under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, per Politico.
As the Times notes, this would come as China has unveiled ambitious plans to be a world leader in fields such as driverless cars, artificial intelligence, and robotics by 2025. China also has been pressuring US companies to cut licensing fees, share technology, and set up Chinese outposts if they want to do business there. Long before he became president, Trump had been criticizing China for dealing unfairly with US companies, notes Axios. In fact, he "has been more rhetorically consistent on this issue than on any other he's talked about in his decades in the public eye," writes Jonathan Swan. The upshot could be stiff tariffs on Chinese products and an escalation of tensions between the two nations. One big question still unanswered is whether the US would act on its own or go through the World Trade Organization, reports the Wall Street Journal.