The Trump administration took new action Tuesday in its emerging strategy to ramp up trade pressure on Beijing, dusting off a little-used authority to combat imports of inexpensive Chinese aluminum.
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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told American industry executives that his department would "self-initiate" an investigation into whether their Chinese competitors were illegally selling certain products below cost. It is the first time in a quarter-century that the U.S. government has initiated such a probe that wasn't first initiated by the private sector.
The move is aimed at accelerating the process of imposing protective duties on "dumped" foreign goods, and saving industry costly legal fees. It also helps to overcome the hesitance of some firms to take the lead in challenging China, for fear of retribution.
This is just the beginning of a process that is expected to play out over months. A final decision on whether to impose fresh duties on Chinese aluminum is still months away, and would require signoff from an independent trade panel before such penalties could be deployed. But administration officials emphasized the symbolic significance of the message they were intending to send.
"President Trump made it clear from day one that unfair trade practices will not be tolerated under this administration," Mr. Ross said in a call with aluminum industry executives. The move, he said shows "once again that we stand in constant vigilance in support of free, fair, and reciprocal trade."
The Tuesday action comes three weeks after President Donald Trump went to Beijing to meet with his counterpart, Xi Jinping. While trade tensions didn't dominate that summit, Mr. Trump did raise there his displeasure with the large U.S. trade deficit with China -- and aides signaled at the time that, upon his return, they would intensify a long-planned strategy of threatening Beijing with unilateral trade sanctions.
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The new aluminum probe is the first such move taken since Mr. Trump's trip -- but it has been added to an already-broad portfolio of long-dormant measures officials are considering reviving, if they decide to follow through on a more aggressive stance toward China.
China didn't immediately respond to the Commerce Department announcement.