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Trump lashes China over trade during UN speech

President Trump during a meeting with law-enforcement officials in the White House, February 6, 2018. Photo: AP

US President Trump lashed out at China for "relentless product dumping, forced technology transfer and the theft of intellectual property" during a speech at the United Nations on Tuesday.

Speaking to a session in the UN General Assembly, which opened in New York this week, Trump said that he had great respect for Chinese President Xi Jinping, but warned that "I have made clear that our trade imbalance is just not acceptable. The market distortions and the way that they deal cannot be tolerated."

Trump said that the United States had lost over 3 million manufacturing jobs and 60,000 factories after China joined the World Trade Organization, blaming Beijing for violating every principle on which the WTO is based.

"Those days are over," the president declared. "We will no longer tolerate it and we will not allow our workers to be victimized, our companies to be cheated, and our wealth to be plundered and transferred. America will never apologize for protecting its citizens."

Ramping up his rhetoric on Beijing, the US president also noted that the United States had recently enacted laws "to better screen foreign investments in our country for national security threats" and encouraged other nations to do the same. He was referring to the passage of the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act, which strengthened the screening of investments in sensitive US industries by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

The new law will make it harder for Chinese companies to invest in US industries, as well as non-Chinese companies that might have significant ties to China like suppliers. The scope of the oversight has been widened to include things like companies that hold personal data on US citizens.

Trump's harsh rebuke of China comes in the midst of a growing trade war between the two countries.

On Monday, the US formally imposed tariffs on another $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, prompting Beijing to hit $60 billion worth of US goods with tariffs of their own. The total value of goods between the two countries now subject to tariffs sits at $360 billion.

Amid the latest round of tariffs, China scrapped plans to hold trade negotiations with the United States.

China has made clear that it is "entirely up to the US side" to show respect and sincerity for the negotiations to resume. But deputy trade negotiator Wang Shouwen warned that resuming the talks at this fraught stage will be difficult. "How could you negotiate with someone when he puts a knife on your neck?"  Wang told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday.

"The UN has a special meaning in Chinese political discourse. UN membership and status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council symbolize China being accepted and embraced as a member of the global community of nation-states," said Zhao Ma, an associate professor of Chinese history and culture at Washington University in St. Louis.

"To openly criticize China on China's most valued global stage shows the Trump administration's effort to put maximum pressure on China for future trade talks," Zhao said.

Relations have also been tested on other fronts in recent days. For example, Beijing summoned the American ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, over the weekend to discuss sanctions the US State Department slapped on Chinese entities for buying Russian military equipment.

"Trump re-emphasized the value and the importance of the trade war with China, demonstrating the unlikeliness for him to compromise," said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.

"This hardline position on trade is a reflection of the conviction on the part of the US for the decoupling of the two economies, which has critical political and security implications."

Trump's comments contrasted sharply with his UN address last year, when his speech was defined by a threat to "totally destroy North Korea" and featured a mixed tone concerning China.

A year ago, Trump avoided naming Beijing as an enabler for Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, which his administration called the most pressing global security threat at the time, and refrained from attacking Beijing for the trade imbalance that he had highlighted since before he took office in January 2017.

Trump mentioned China specifically last year only to thank Xi for his cooperation on North Korea.

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