US relations with China took a potentially nasty turn on Monday when President Trump ordered a preliminary inquiry into Beijing's trade practices. Even before Trump formally signed a memorandum to put things in motion, China made it clear it was unhappy. The move will hurt the US economy and "poison" US-China relations, declared an editorial in the official China Daily newspaper, per Reuters. And a foreign ministry spokeswoman warned of a potential trade war with "no winner," per the AP.
- The basics: Trump directed his top trade official, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, to look into whether China is treating US businesses unfairly and infringing on their intellectual property, per CNBC. Lighthizer's task is to figure out whether a larger, formal investigation is warranted. There's no timetable, but it could take him up to a year.
- Which means: This isn't so much an investigation as it is an investigation into an investigation, and this interim move could give the two sides time to work something out before things get too far along, explains the New York Times.
- Trump: "It's a very big move," the president said in signing the memorandum. He called it an important step to "protect the intellectual property of American companies" and thus American jobs. See the video.
- One main complaint: China often forces US companies who want to work in the nation to partner with Chinese companies and thus share proprietary tech secrets, per the Times. A member of a bipartisan group called the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission says the White House action is "long overdue" because “China’s been engaged in the theft and forced transfer of US technologies and intellectual property for years."
- Too soft? China may be ticked, but Trump critics such as Sen. Charles Schumer think the White House is going easy on Beijing. "To make an announcement that they're going to decide whether to have an investigation on China's well-documented theft of our intellectual property is another signal to China that it is OK to keep stealing."
- North Korea: Of course, all this is playing out amid the backdrop of North Korea, with the White House hoping to get China to help rein in the North. There are two schools of thought on that: This inquiry could be leverage to pressure China, notes the Washington Post, or it could backfire and make Beijing more reluctant than ever to help the US. The story notes that the announcement seems to have been delayed to come after the US got China to go along with UN sanctions on Pyongyang.
- Tit for tat: In the Asia Times, Ken Moak argues that this could end disastrously for both countries. If the US eventually restricts Chinese imports, expect Beijing to penalize US imports, thus hurting American businesses. "Coupled with insufficient domestic demand, losing the Chinese market could be a replay of a Deep Recession."
(Read more US-China relations