US President Donald Trump speaks at Trump National Golf Club, Aug 12, 2017, in Bedminster, New Jersey. Officials of the US administration said on Saturday that President Trump would direct the US trade representative on Aug 15, 2017 to determine whether to investigate China's trade practices. (PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP)
WASHINGTON – The US administration said here on Saturday that President Donald Trump would direct on Monday the US trade representative (USTR) to determine whether to investigate China's trade practices, triggering concerns that Washington may take unilateral moves harming China-US trade and economic ties.
The USTR Robert Lighthizer would consider whether to probe China's trade practices under Section 301 of the Trade Act, senior officials said. They however declined to disclose when the USTR's decision would be made.
If Lighthizer decides to go ahead with an investigation, the United States would first consult with China, officials said, adding that the investigation process could take as long as a year.
The Section 301, which was passed in 1974 and heavily used in 1980s and early 1990s, would allow the US president to unilaterally impose tariffs or other trade restrictions against foreign countries. But the US has rarely used that obsolete trade law since the World Trade Organization (WTO) came into effect in 1995.
"It became no longer necessary really for the United States that they have to use that law, because now we have an effective dispute settlement system under the WTO," Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, told Xinhua.
The legal timeline of the process under Section 301 doesn't work well with the rules of the WTO, he said.
"A decision to trigger Section 301 today is problematic because it would provide additional fuel to the already simmering argument that the Trump administration is undoing the American commitment to rules-based trade and decades of work to establish international cooperation," argued Bown.
He worked as a senior economist for international trade and investment in the White House Council of Economic Advisers and the World Bank.
Michael Froman, former USTR under the Obama administration, has also warned that the US could face retaliation if the country moves away from resolving trade disputes through the WTO and instead starts taking unilateral actions.
"It will just lead other countries to retaliate against us or perhaps even worse, imitate us, and take action on their own without regard to international obligations," he said.
In this May 21, 2017 photo, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, left, attends a joint press conference held on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) 23rd Ministers responsible for Trade Meeting in Hanoi. (HOANG DINH Nam / POOL / AFP)
The Chinese Ministry of Commerce has stressed the importance of China-US trade ties and urged US authorities to abide by WTO rules in its trade measures.
"Any trade measures to be taken by WTO members must conform to WTO rules," Gao Feng, spokesman of Chinese Ministry of Commerce, said earlier this month, noting China and the US would push forward the bilateral trade and economic relation in the basic principle of win-win cooperation and resolve differences "through dialogues and consultations."