With Trump administration members sending mixed messages on the status of trade negotiations with China, lawmakers are urging the White House to clarify its position and to keep the pressure on the Chinese to stop them from stealing intellectual property.
Early Monday the president tweeted that, in order to wind down an escalating trade feud between the two countries, China would buy more American products in order to reduce the trade deficit between the two nations.
That followed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s declaration over the weekend that the administration was “putting the trade war on hold,” including lifting tariffs that the United States had threatened on China in retaliation for its theft of U.S. intellectual property.
Lawmakers including Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer warned that it wasn’t worth it for the U.S. to remove the threat of tariffs on China simply for a one-time promise of an unspecified amount of import purchases.
“If nothing else changes, this deal is a win-win for China,” Schumer said Monday.
And in a statement that clashed with Trump’s sanguine tweet, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer seemed to warn over the weekend that attaining an unspecified agreement on agricultural products would not achieve more critical long-term goals on intellectual property. He said the U.S. must focus on getting China to agree to reforms such as scrapping requirements that U.S. companies share technology with their Chinese counterparts in order to take part in joint ventures there.
"Getting China to open its market to more U.S. exports is significant, but the far more important issues revolve around forced technology transfers, cyber theft and the protection of our innovation," Lighthizer’s statement read.
Asked about the administration’s evolving China trade strategy, several Republicans said the White House needed to fill them in on what was happening, as most of them had only heard and read media reports about the developing talks over the weekend.
“I encourage [the administration] to brief the Hill and let us know where it is because obviously, we’ve been very engaged in concerns about trade issues,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., the chairman of a key Asia subcommittee, told ABC.
“I heard Secretary Mnuchin’s comments,” on the trade détente, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told ABC as he walked into a meeting with Senate leadership. “I think there was a little difference between [Lighthizer] and himself. I just don’t know the inside.”
As the administration continues its discussions with China, Congress is taking some initial steps to curtail the president from giving too much relief to one particular company that is representative of some of China’s trade violations: ZTE, a telecom sanctioned in April over concerns that the Chinese government was using ZTE technology to spy on Americans.
Last week a House Appropriations subcommittee approved a measure that would block the Commerce Department from lifting a seven-year ban on ZTE’s ability to purchase U.S. supplies. In a series of tweets last week Trump suggested he was open to easing up on ZTE.
Schumer said the Senate will consider additional measures to keep the pressure on that company if necessary and that Democrats will seek support from across the aisle.
“I say to President Trump, who knows I genuinely want him to succeed with China: Stay strong. Don't back off sanctions with ZTE. You have to pursue the course or China will continue to enjoy the upper hand,” he said on the Senate floor Monday.