U.S. trade rep: "We are losing to China"

Lawmakers on Wednesday told U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer that the Trump administration's trade policies risk hurting workers and the broader economy.

"Oftentimes indiscriminate tariffs are not the right approach," Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, told Lighthizer in hearing on U.S. trade policy. 

"It's not about backing down, it's about hitting the target," Brady added. 

The hearing comes as the Trump administration is reportedly set to propose measures as early as Thursday aimed at what U.S. officials say are unfair trade practices by China. Those are said to include a package of up to $60 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports.

Mr. Trump in 2017 directed Lighthizer to look into claims that China swipes U.S. intellectual property and forces American companies to transfer their technological expertise to Chinese companies as a condition for doing business in the People's Republic. 

The president would be making a decision on tariffs targeting China in "the very near future," Lighthizer said on Wednesday. "Our view is we have a very serious problem of losing our intellectual property. We are losing to China in ways not reflected in underlying economics."

Asked about reports that the U.S. was readying as much as $60 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese products coming into the U.S.,  the trade representative said the details were up to Mr. Trump, but stressed that "there are certain technology products that are under assault."

Efforts by the previous two administrations were ineffective in producing fairer trade terms with China, Lighthizer added.

Lawmakers voiced concerns about potentially sparking a trade war with China.

"Let's not shoot ourselves in the foot," Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minnesota, told Lighthizer, saying such a move could jeopardize 800,000 manufacturing jobs in Minnesota.

Retailers including Minnesota-based Best Buy would be harmed by penalties imposed on imported products from China. "Consumer electronics doesn't have domestic production," said Paulsen, who questioned the benefit of "raising the cost of a laptop for a college student."

Any tariffs the U.S. imposes on China could take several weeks to implement, Goldman Sachs (GS) analysts said in a report. Other possible trade actions, such as restrictions on investments by Chinese companies in the U.S., also could be announced in concept, giving the sides time to negotiate.

Targeting China with tariffs and threats by Mr. Trump to withdraw the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are creating a business climate of uncertainty that is offsetting gains from recent tax cuts, other lawmakers said during the hearing. 

The process of determining which countries would be exempt from tariffs on imported steel and aluminum would be concluded by the end of April, the trade rep said.

"Initially the NAFTA countries are out," said Lighthizer of Canada and Mexico, U.S. partners in the pact. "We have similar circumstances with respect to South Korea," he said, also citing Australia, Argentina and the European Union as among the entities the U.S. is talking to about being exempt. "Soon we'll begin talking to Brazil."

As the U.S. mulls more tariffs, China recently has made overtures to Washington, saying it would take steps to safeguard the intellectual property of foreigners investing in the country and urging Washington to "act rationally."

"No one will emerge a winner from a trade war," Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the No. 2 Chinese leader, said Tuesday at a conference in Beijing.

U.S. business groups this week warned that broad tariffs on Chinese imports would raise consumer prices and costs for businesses as well as hurting the economy more broadly.